1. Betrayal

               

    When King Hardik rescued his love from the clutches of a brutal warlord and brought her home on the back of a red elephant, he had been strong and sure. Doubt had not yet crawled into the creases of his mouth. All he could see were Utpalini’s eyes, as full of diamonds as they’d been the day he’d lost her.

                “You were not harmed?” he asked her many times, as though she’d open up like a river and tell him all her woes.

                “I was not touched by any man,” she replied with a soft smile.

                “And you never gave him your heart?”

                She twisted in the saddle and pressed her palm against his chest. “It’s been with you.”

                He reached down and kissed the top of her head. He had her now, safe in his arms, and he’d never let anything happen to her again.

               

    The city cheered when they rode through the gates. Women tossed colored mukhwas that sprinkled in Utpalini’s hair and dotted the king’s shoulders in candied confetti. Children ran along beside the elephant, singing about Utpalini’s great beauty. She smiled down at them, glad to be back with her people. But amongst all the jubilation and fanfare, a single ball of spit slapped Utpalini on her cheek. She wiped it quickly away, but not before Hardik noticed and furrowed his brows. The songs, the fragrant petals, and the cries of happiness faded like chalk pictures in the rain. At last, they reached the palace, and Hardik ordered the elephant down.

    While the palace prepared for a celebration, Hardik would not let go of Utpalini’s hand. They hid in the recesses of the garden, twisted together like vines until the banquet began.

    “Queen Utpalini, we welcome you home,” the King’s mother, Geeta, said with a bow. She had not been in the streets, and Hardik was grateful she had not seen the spit on his wife’s cheek. Uptalini smiled in return and settled before the banquet table, silent and wide-eyed. “I have been told,” Geeta continued with narrowed eyes, “That you were held separate from the warlord’s court, alone but for the warlord himself?”

                Uptalini frowned. “I was never alone.”

                Geeta tapped her fingers against her lips and nodded. “I see.”

                Hardik was about to say something to defend Utpalini, but the musicians began thumping on their drums just then, and the long line of dancers entered the hall. The women wore saris of gold and red, and the men leaped in the air, chests bare and glistening as they swung around the throng of women. 

                Hardik eyed Uptalini. She watched with a wide smile, but her chin dimpled as it did when she was trying not to cry. At last, the dancers left, the music faded away, and the people were allowed to eat.

                Uptalini did not eat. She stirred her rice and pushed the bowl of paneer away. Geeta clicked her tongue in distaste, and began once more to ask too many questions.

                “Mother, she is home and that is all I care about,” Hardik said.

                “Is it? Do you not worry what the people in this city will think? Do you not wonder what happened in that fortress? How did she manage to survive a whole year unscathed? If not her body, then what did she offer the warlord in exchange for keeping her beauty and health?”

                Uptalini set her hands on her lap before turning to Geeta. “I have returned with a clear conscience. I have done nothing that would cause me to be harshly judged in the eyes of the gods.”

                One of the men to Hardik’s right leaned forward with pursed lips. “Forgive me, King Hardik, but there is much talk about this amongst the people. They wonder, naturally, how you could swallow such a pill as this, taking back a wife who has been living with another man.”

                Hardik felt his body ignite. His wife had been home less than a day, and already they were judging her. “She was not living with another man. She was imprisoned in a madman’s fortress. Forty-three of my soldiers died in battle today while we fought off her captors. My wife stayed true.”

                “So she says,” the man continued. “But how are we to believe the word of a woman gone from us one full year?”

                The mutterings continued until they were as thick as the summer air. Hardik fumed and stared at those who dared to question his trust until he took one glance at Uptalini and saw she’d sunken into herself.

                “It should be enough that I am here, that I am alive, and that I love you,” Uptalini said to him. Then she stood and faced the assembly. “If you do not believe me, then believe your king. He knows my true heart, and he believes in me.”

                Then Geeta, who had been quietly watching the discussion, set down her tea with a heavy clink of enameled brass. She stood up to join Uptalini. “I am afraid, my daughter, that the people need more than the trust of a besotted king. They demand proof of your innocence.”

                Uptalini opened her mouth and shut it once more.

                “How could she possibly prove any such thing?” Hardik asked.

                The man beside him cleared his throat and waited for silence. “There is a way that will both prove her chastity as well as purify her soul should be not be innocent.”

                When he explained what it was Uptalini must do, Hardik’s stomach swirled in nausea. He believed her, so she would come to no harm. But they were asking much of her.

    The sun had set when the crowd gathered, their faces lit by the reddish glow of charcoal and ember. The burning coals reflected the blood-lust in the eyes of all but Hardik and Uptalini.

                The servants removed her slippers and guided her to the start of the flaming path, where Hardik stood with a vice around his heart.

                “I wish you did not have to do this,” he said. He knew he sounded weak, but the people had forced his hand. There was nothing he could do. The people had demanded that Uptalini walk barefoot on the path of burning coals. If she was indeed chaste, the gods would save her. If she was not, then she’d erupt in flames. All she had to do was walk with a pure mind, and everything would be perfect again. Hardik reached out and squeezed her arm for reassurance.

                Uptalini wiped a tear, forced a smile, and lifted her chin. “Then tell them you will not force me to walk across these coals.”

                Hardik’s breath caught in his throat. Why was she not willing to walk? Was she trying to prevent herself from catching fire?

                No, of course not. She would never have lied to him. Nevertheless, he had to prove to the unbelievers that she was loyal.

                “I don’t think there’s anything I can do to make them believe you,” he said.

                She nodded and took a step. Her bare toes reached forward and came to rest on a bright orange clump of coals. When there was no scream, no backward jump, no flash of fire, Hardik began to breath again. She had been telling him the truth.

                Uptalini took another step, and she was out on the burning path. Quickly but surely, she walked ten more steps until she came to rest on the soft, green grass.

                The crowd was frozen in silent awe, but Uptalini did not give them a moment to cry out in relief and support. She turned on her heels and faced her husband.

                “I walked across those coals not to prove my words, but to show that I could not longer trust you.”

                Hardik blinked. What did she mean? Of course she could trust him. He loved her.

                Uptalini walked back to the edge of the coals. “It does not matter any more that I was chaste, or that I returned home with my self intact. It does not matter because you have pulled me apart with this one small strip of fire.”

                Then she dove into the coals, and this time, she was not saved by the gods.

                Hardik jumped into the fire and pulled her out, then dragged her to the lotus pond. Quickly, he crawled into the water with her in his arms and stayed there until he fell asleep on his feet.

               

    The pond’s surface was elastic, so he could not push through it. As soft as it was, it stung his skin and the shock of it swept up his nerves to the place where she stayed in his memory, always defiant, always broken.

                He had doused her with water, but he had been too late.

    .

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    (This story was based on the tale of Sita.) 

     

  2. WAYS OF BEING A MERMAID’S DAUGHTER by Rosamund Hodge

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    There is only one way to be a mermaid stolen by a human as a wife. You lie willing and limpid in your husband’s bed. You cook his meals and clean his house, your pale eyes always gazing through stone walls to the world you left behind. You bear him graceful, quiet daughters, and suckle them so tenderly that folk wonder at the mother-love concealed the ocean. Then they are weaned, and when they drink no more of you, to you they are no more than other things that crawl upon the land. You care for them as you kiss your husband: gently and indifferently.

    If you find the tattered, dried-out fish skin concealed at the bottom of his trunk, you put it on and slide back into the water without a second thought. (You never had a first thought, as humans count them.)

    If you do not, it is the same. It does not matter what your body does, or how your husband and your children break their hearts about you. Behind your eyes, you are lost in depths and hidden currents.

    It is only humans that choose, after all: water is.

    There is only one way to be that mermaid.

    There are a hundred ways to be her daughter.

    Read More

    (Source: 365daysofhorror)

     

  3. Together by Annie Cardi

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                We weren’t supposed to be there.

                We heard about the quarry from a bunch of seniors who went there last summer, jumping off cliffs into the cold water fifty feet below. “It’s a rush,” they said. “You can’t see the bottom, but it’s pretty deep. You can even smoke up around there because it’s way in the woods and no one ever comes by.”

                The quarry was private property, so we parked behind the Burger King, where Shawn worked after school. “Kevin’s the shift manager today, and he won’t care,” he said. “He’s mad jealous it’s not his day off.”

                It was about a mile to the quarry, so we bought iced coffees and slung beach bags over our shoulders and headed into the woods. None of us were especially outdoorsy, so every so often someone would ask if we were going in the right direction and if anyone could actually read a compass. We wore our bathing suits under our clothes, our flip flops sending pine needles into the air every time we stepped. It was the first day of summer vacation and, after being cooped up in classrooms and hallways and study halls all year, we weren’t used to being outside on a Tuesday morning. We laughed loudly and walked into each other and wrapped our arms around each other’s shoulders like we would all belong together forever. Everything felt fresh and forbidden and ours.

                Someone started singing cheesy old songs like in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight that we learned in middle school chorus. Shawn’s voice was a clear baritone that flowed below everyone else’s.

                When we got to the quarry, everything was still and silent. We felt like we’d stumbled onto this hidden world, like when we would open closet doors and pretend we could disappear into Narnia.

                “Aw yeah,” Shawn said. “This is going to be so awesome. I call first.”

                We stripped down to our bathing suits and climbed to the highest point of the quarry. Some of the girls bemoaned how pasty they still were (“it’s only the beginning of summer,” someone said) and some of the guys posed like they were the body doubles for all the freaking Marvel superheroes (keep dreaming). We’d all seen each other in bathing suits before, at birthday pool parties or days at the beach. We’d lain across each other’s laps during movies in someone’s basement and huddled together waiting for the bus in January and held each other after failed tests and breakups and other minor disasters. But slowly everyone was changing—who was taller, whose bathing suit top was tighter, whose arms were muscular. We were becoming the people we would become and for maybe an afternoon we could all stay exactly the same and each other’s.

                Shawn went first, of course, leaping off the edge of the cliff like he was jumping into the gym pool. Some people jumped screaming, others tried tricks like flipping in the air or graceful swan dives. In the air, everything was frozen for a moment—the sunlight across the trees, the rippling of the water, the cheers and laughter from the edge. Then the water would rush to meet you and it was too sudden to be cold.

                We went again and again and again until we were exhausted from climbing and swimming and cheering.

                “One more,” Shawn said. Everyone shook their heads, mumbled they were done, but he looked at me. “Together?”

                The night before, Shawn and I went for a run around the park, because we’d promised each other we’d be ready for varsity try-outs in the fall. (Soccer for him, cross-country for me.) We didn’t talk much as we ran, but naturally fell into pace with each other so it felt like we could go forever. I could almost feel the pulse of his heart through his skin and shirt as he ran next to me. When we finished and stood on a corner, about to go our separate ways, he took a step toward me and kissed me. I was sweaty and red-faced but his hand held the side of my head it like it was meant to fit there. His lips were soft and his kiss was refreshing, like a cool drink of water. I’d known Shawn forever and suddenly he wasn’t Shawn anymore; he was my Shawn.

                I didn’t tell anyone about the kiss yet. I wanted it to stay mine for a little while, and Shawn seemed to feel the same. That morning, every time he looked at me the secret swelled between us.

                “Together,” I said.

                We stood on the edge of the cliff and, just before we jumped, he leaned toward me and kissed me again. Behind us, everyone whooped and cheered as we leapt into the air.

                For a second I felt light and free; we were shining.

                Then we hit the water.

                I surfaced and looked around for Shawn so we could kiss again, but he didn’t appear. I spun around, treading water, listening to everyone above as they continued to cheer, and then slowly got quiet.

                I shouted for him. “This isn’t funny!” I screamed, voice echoing across the water and scaring some nearby ducks. “Stop being such an asshole!” I decided that, if it was a joke, I wouldn’t kiss him even if I wanted to, even if I was relieved, because I was starting to panic and everything felt cold and it wasn’t just the water.

                I dove down, trying to find him, but the water was too murky and deep. Later, the police told us that it was at least 60 feet deep in places, and the bottom was filled with trash—beer bottles, old radios, rusted cars. I kicked deeper, stretching my hand as far as I could and hoping that he would reach out from the darkness and I would pull him to the surface. But every time I reached, I grasped at water, water, water.

                The others scrambled down from the cliff. A couple joined me in the water, while most huddled on the shore, crying and calling for him.

                I was about to dive again when someone said “Aimee,” and grabbed my arm. “We have to go get help.”

                “Fuck you,” I said. “I’m not leaving him.”

                They pulled me out of the water. I was kicking and screaming that I could find him, that he was waiting for me to find him, that it was a stupid joke and I could do it, I just needed a little more time, but my body was exhausted and eventually they dragged me back onto the door and I couldn’t do anything but sit there. Someone wrapped a towel around my shoulders. I didn’t realize I was crying until someone dried my face.

                The police came with medics and boats and divers. We huddled under patient blankets and explained what happened over and over: everything was fine and then he hit the water, it was like his back hit first, maybe his head, it wasn’t the first time he jumped, we thought he was messing around.

                “This is why this place is off-limits,” an officer told us. “Everything’s a good time until something like this happens.”

                “You have to find him,” was all I said. “He’s in there. He’s somewhere.”

                They pulled him out two days later.

                On the news, reporters talked about a ‘tragic accident’ and how alcohol had not been a factor. About how we’d all gone to the quarry to swim together, how other teens do this all the time. About how Shawn had just finished his junior year, about how he was well-liked by his peers and teachers. About how he was a good son, worked hard at his after-school job, how he probably would have made varsity soccer in the fall, maybe gotten a scholarship.

                They didn’t talk about how when he laughed, you couldn’t help but laughing with him. About how he was the first to give someone a hug when something awful happened. About how he gave you extra fries whenever you ordered from him, without you even having to ask. About how beautiful he was, glistening there in the sunlight, looking at me like I was the only person there and asking me to make a leap with him.

     

  4. 8-Gif: THE FIRE WISH, by Amber Lough

    HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY to amberlough and THE FIRE WISH.

    1. I stepped onto the dirt and shielded my eyes from the blinding star in the sky.

    2. I tried to pray, but all I could do was go through the motions and think about how we were like birds in a cage.

    3. Gypsum shards jutted out from the walls, catching the lamplight and scattering it every which way. The shards were as sharp as bat teeth, and I’d had nightmares of them falling and crashing through my house.

    4. Didn’t you have to have a soul to cry?

    5. In all the stories, there was one place that made me tremble in excitement at the briefest of descriptions. This was the one place my father refused to speak about, which convinced me I needed to hear more about it. It spurred stories, nightmares, and back-and-forth whispering with Rahela and Yashar. And there it was, the nightmare, with all it’s shining, pointy rocks.
    Hell itself. The kingdom of jinn.

    6. The Lamp sat there, as big as a lion. I wanted to run my fingers through its flame, but like its twin in the Cavern, it hadn’t been lit since the war began.

    7. Smoke seeped out my mouth, curled in the air, and smudged the brightness of the stars.

    8. “No!” My voice echoed, sounding more frightened than it should have. “This cannot happen.” Talking hurt my jaw, so I cradled it and cried angry tears.
    It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

    THE FIRE WISH, ladies and gentlemen. Available to you wherever books are sold.

    —-
    gifs selected by Natalie C Parker, Julie Murphy, Rosamund Hodge, Bethany Hagen, Elle Cosimano, Annie Cardi, E.K. Johnston and Amber Lough.

     

  5. DARK AND DEEP, by Elle Cosimano

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    The air tasted like salt and blood and smelled like creek sludge, and the grinder churned out mounds of pulpy red mush into a five-gallon bucket between my feet. I grabbed a handful of cold fish and fed them to the blades by their tails. When both buckets were full, I wiped sweat from my forehead, breathing hard.

    I carried them down the wharf, eyes on the horizon as I struggled to find my balance. A red sunrise turned the river into a sheet of blood-brown glass. A heron dipped low, cutting it with long dragging legs, his eyes following me.

    “Don’t even think about it,” I grumbled at him, and clumsily shifted my grip. The metal handles cut into my fingers, pulling every muscle from forearm to shoulder, and grazing my knees hard enough to scratch. If we didn’t need the money so bad, I’d have gladly thrown both buckets into the creek and let the gulls and osprey have at them. At barely six, the air was already thick enough to swim through, and my chocolate milk would be hot and my sausage biscuit cold before I finished.

    But this was it. This was everything. The last good summer Dad had in him. The last summer before I’d be out on my own.

    “Pick up the pace, Bait Board.” Mitch passed me, slipping his wiry brown body in the narrow space between me and the edge of the wharf. He laughed as one of my buckets knocked a piling, tossing a handful of chum into the dark water and alerting the gulls, who circled eagerly and shat white trails behind me.

    I tried not to look at my chest, even though it felt like it was shrinking. Same way he made everything inside me feel like it was shrinking. God, I hated him. Hated them all.

    “Man, it’s hot!” Mitch hollered from his perch above the Genevieve. He peeled off his t-shirt and crumpled it into a ball, shaking the sweat from his hair like an unruly wet dog. “Come on, Bait Board! Take your shirt off!” At that, Skeeter and Clayton followed suit, all of them prancing around shirtless and laughing like hyenas.

    I gritted my teeth and pretended not to hear them, but a hot flush crept over my hairline, giving me away.

    “You should put yours back on, Mitch. Sweaty Loser isn’t a good look for you.”

    Mitch spit over the side, glaring at me like he’d as soon throw me in the chum grinder. David watched, half-sitting on a tar-topped piling, thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his shorts. The bright light made him squint, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He made a show of inspecting a pair of rusty pliers, and I half-expected him to say something smart when I passed, but he didn’t say a word. He just glanced at me out of the corner of that squinty eye, his lip quirked up like maybe he’d been smiling. 

    “Bitsy!” My father cracked his window at the helm and turned down the squawk on his radio. He punched coordinates into his navigation computer and logged an odometer into a logbook that would be forgotten in a matter of hours. He lost a little more of himself each day, and soon, it wouldn’t be safe for him on the water anymore. “Load us up, sweetheart. Tide’s a wastin’.” He turned over the engine and the big CAT rumbled to life, kicking up the smell of diesel.

    I lowered my buckets into the stern of the Adrianna, sparing a quick glance at the other boats. Their crews scurried from bow to stern. Mitch was already prepping reels and tying liters and hooks. But their fuel lines were still running. Those bigger boats took longer to fill, and were slower too. We would beat them to the channel.

    I didn’t care if they didn’t like me. This was it. This was everything. And I was better at this than all of them.

    Read More

    (Source: gph.is)

     

  6. RAMONA DROWNING by Julie Murphy

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        The heat clung to my skin like a bad memory as salt water lapped against my ankles. Even here, on the beach in the early morning hours, summer would not be forgotten. The moon hung in the sky, chasing the horizon, as the sun crept along the waterfront.

        I dropped my shoes in the sand and stepped further out into the ocean until the water skimmed the hem of my dress. I’d said goodbye to Lillie just moments ago. Right about now her family would be packing up their station wagon to go back home to their landlocked city and their every day life. It would be like every other summer and every other girl. Lillie would leave. But unlike the others, she didn’t offer empty promises to call, text, and email, because Lillie never made promises she couldn’t keep. She had a whole life outside of this little town. One I didn’t fit into.

        But I’d be here. The same Ramona I’d always been. Just as much a town attraction as the canoe rentals. Ramona: your one stop summer fling.

        The water pulled at my dress as I went deeper and deeper until I was waist-deep with my skirt splayed out like a tablecloth. The water was familiar to me, like a vice that knew you’d be back.

    Read More

     

  7. THE SHELF, by E.K. Johnston

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    Your eyes are white when you are born – the colour of the foam at the tips of the crashing waves that have sung lullabies to your kin for generations – and your mother weeps to see them, because she knows then that you are lost.

    You do not remember this, of course.

    Only, your sisters tell you, over and over and over, until you hate them, and your mother, and the sea. She says it’s better this way, your mother does. She feeds you and clothes you, but she is never gentle with your scraped knees like she is when your sisters come in from the yard crying and bloody. You are more a thing than a child; a smoked fish that can be left on a shelf without fear of rot until you are needed for use.

    You only know you are lonely because they pity you for being alone.

    Your deepest secret is also a lie. You do not hate the ocean: you love it. Despite its mockery of you and the way your sisters tell you again and again that it will be your doom, you cannot stop from watching it, from learning its moods. From admiring its power. You never say it, even though you don’t know exactly why. Instead you watch your mother as she looks out at the blue horizon and cries. You listen as your sisters run, shrieking, from the cold stretch of the broken waves on the sandy beach, ever daring one another to step closer.

    They never dare you.

    It never occurs to you to dare yourself. Instead you watch. You decide you like the winter ocean best, the one that is angry and grey. You imagine that if you go deep enough, the water does not care what season it is on the shore: it is only cold and colder, and dark. The winter ocean is the true one. It does not conceal its fury with a reflected sunny sky.

    Your mother had a brother.

    Once.

    You only know this because one time she called you by another boy’s name. You didn’t ask her to explain, but your sisters did, peppering her with questions until she slapped the nearest one. That’s when you knew that the sea had him, though you did not know how. Your mother is afraid of the sea, and afraid of you, and so she slaps you when the fear is big enough to swallow her whole. She is never that fearful of your sisters. You never ask; you don’t have to. You can hear his name ever after, whenever her hand flies at your face.

    It doesn’t happen very often, though, once you are older. Somehow, her fear has passed.

    It’s winter when it happens, and the chill of the sea creeping through the walls of the house, narrow fingers finding cracks for the wind and the spray. Your sisters huddle around the stove with their coats on, and don’t let you come too close. You sit across the room, a scarf around your neck, hiding the narrow slits you woke up with the morning that the weather turned so cold. The air in the house feels thicker, resting on your tongue and tickling your throat. You think it is because it’s been so long since any of you could go outside.

    You’re wrong about that.

    It never made any sense to you, the sand. Your sisters held shells up to their ears and heard the ocean, but when you stood on the sand, it was like a thousand whispers in your head. If you tried to find a shell of your own, your mother would stop you, and so you gave up. It was just another thing your sisters had that you did not. You wore shoes on the beach, and the whispers stopped. Now, though there is snow in the air and ice stacking up on the shore, and you are in the house, the whispers have come back.

    You want, so very badly, to know what it is they say.

    You sleep with the window open. You don’t care that the wall might freeze. You don’t care that your sisters screech when they see it, complaining that you will kill them all with cold. You don’t care that your mother turns white – the sick kind, not the snowy kind – and pulls her shawl over her head. You only want to hear the waves, louder and louder, until you cannot hear anything else.

    But you can hear something else. You always could.

    The first time you put a toe in the sea, it is spring and you have put your scarf away forever. The slits on your neck flare, and for the first time in months, you breathe like the air is clear. When you get back to the house, your mother has barred the door, and does not let you in until the sun has set and you have sat on the step for hours.

    It is the last time you go home.

    She does not stop you. She does not even try. She gave you up the moment she saw you with your eyes open. If she loved you, it was only for the first few moments of your life. She has saved everything for your sisters. She has not taken, but she has never given, either.

    When you stand in the sea to your knees, you know how to find your way home.

    It’s easy after that. You swim like one born to it, and born to it you were.

    You plunge under the rolling swells, and ride the breaking waves close to shore, but you never touch dry sand again. With your feet under water, the whispers become a song, and you know that you can follow them whenever you wish. Your sisters watch you leave, the song tells you, but you do not look back.

    The waves close over your head and you breathe deep for the first time in your life.

    You walk for miles in the pale light. You do not float and you do not drown. Your gills make it easy, once you learn the trick of shifting how you think about your breath. You walk until you reach the edge, and when you look down into the dark, you know that this, this, this, is your home.

    It isn’t. That’s just what they told you so that you would go.

    ________________

    Many thanks to lheanan for the GIF!

     

  8. MORGEN by Bethany Hagen

    We breathe once a year.  Some of us climb onto the rocks, some of us merely float offshore.  Some of us swim up the rivers, wondering at the landscapes, green and carved with black ribbons of asphalt, landscapes different from what they were at the beginning.

    The beginning of what?

    I don’t know.

    Some of us say that there was a time when the water was warm and shallow, but all I remember is mist.  Mist, gray and cold, with gelid waves and jagged black rocks.

    But under the water…

    We have tried to take the men there, down where time catches in the current like seaweed, where dark paths unfurl through the depths.  Down down and there is a place, where air and water are the same, where we can swim up to different shores, studded with apple trees, freckled with oak groves, where our cousins dance and play music and eat.

    Down down down.

    The men all died.  All of them, before we could take them through, their eyes widening, limbs jerking as their bodies fought the water. hold on, we would say.almost to the path.  please.

    But they couldn’t hear us in the deep.  They went still and drifting all at once, and the only noise they heard as they died was the pulse pounding in their ears.

    Once I found my sisters gathered around a man, handsome and young (as they all were), his tuxedo shirt starkly white against the darkness around him.  A silver lighter and a matching cigarette case drifted by his shoulder, the tide gently robbing his corpse before someone on the shore could.  His eyes were open, and they were the bluest blue, blue like a southern sea.  The water around him tasted of imminent war, of gunmetal, of expensive cocktails.  I would have kissed him.  I would have twined my arms around his neck and told him not to fear.  I would have taken him to a place where the only cares were dancing and feasting.

    no more, I said to my sisters.

    but can we be blamed for wanting a friend? one of my sisters had asked. a warm friend to take to our cousins?

    no more, I repeated.

    they could change the men.  so that they could live like us.  They swarmed around me, limbs pale in the water, hair floating like clouds.

    and who would ever want that? I asked.

    Perhaps they were tired of it too.  They stopped.  And without the men, many stopped going to the surface at all.  Many of us still went, but more rarely, until we only broke our head above the waves once a year.

    Down down down we stayed.

    *************************************

    It is almost summer when I surface.  I taste it on the air, warmth and life and the memory of ancient fires kindled so long ago.  The first day of May.  I taste something else on the air; there’s a tang of boredom, of cheap boots and even cheaper shampoo, of makeup too heavily worn.  My eyes focus in the light, and I see her.

    She’s sitting on a rock, eyes pinned to the horizon, looking for dolphins maybe or simply letting her thoughts unspool eastward.  She’s pretty, in a morose sort of way, blonde hair streaked with purple, gray eyes smudged black.

    She sees me.  She sees me seeing her.  Her face unfolds from shock to confusion to something I haven’t seen in so long a time—belief.  

    She stands on the rock, and before I can call out, she dives right in, even though the water is nearly freezing.  She swims right up to me, and it’s then I see how her body is banded with flat muscles, the kind that you only get from doing one thing.

    She’s a swimmer.

    When she reaches me, I taste it.  It’s faint, barely there, but it’s distinct.  Chlorine.  Sweat.  And stronger: disappointment.  Aimlessness.

    “You’re not human,” she says, treading water.  Her words are flat and broad.  She’s from somewhere else.  A memory surfaces, a name that she wouldn’t recognize, a place so vast and far away that I’ve only been there once in my long life.

    “and you’re not from here,” I say.  My voice rasps, husky and low.  It’s been decades since I’ve used it above water.

    “I’m staying with my aunt.  I’m supposed to figure out what I want to do with my life.”  Her words are bitter; they are not her words.  I know right away that they are her parents’.

    “a life is not something you do something with.  life is for living.”

    “Not to my parents.  I was supposed to be a swimmer,” she says.  “They spent years and thousands of dollars so that I could go to the Olympics one day.  My entire life has been about competitive swimming.  But after I didn’t make the final cut, I realized I didn’t want to do it any more.  Maybe I hadn’t wanted to do it for a long time.  So I quit.  My parents are not happy.”

    “what’s your name?”

    “Madison.”  But she’s not a Madison, not truly.  It was a name given by parents who wanted success or normativity or popularity for their girl.  Deep inside, she has a truer name.  A name with strength and singularity and depth.

    “have you decided what do you want to do with your life, madison?”

    She thought for a moment.  “I want to love swimming again.  I want to swim.”

    “but not the way they want you to swim.”

    “No.  Not that way.”

    I am intrigued by her.  Most people have gawked at the sight of me.  Men became infatuated instantly.  But not Madison.  Instead, she treads water effortlessly next to me, meets my stare, tells me her story.  It’s in this moment that I fall in love with her smudged gray eyes.

    She reaches out and touches my cheek, her hand so very warm.  “You look like you are my age.  You are naked in the Irish Sea.  What is your name, naked sea girl?”

    Underwater, my name has undulations and echoes that give it meaning, that tell my story.  Not the eldest but still the strongest; not ageless, but not answerable to this world’s time.  Above water: “morgen.”

    She tries it out.  “Morgen.  What are you, Morgen?”

    I know that she has heard words that approximate what I am, that get at some of the truth but not all of it.  I do not say mermaid, for I have no tail.  I do not say water spirit, because I am just as corporeal as she is.  I do not say nymph, because I care not for rivers and lakes but only the sea.

    Instead, I say, “i am a swimmer.”

    She touches my face again.  “Show me.”

    The legends have it wrong.  They make it sound as if we seduce people to their deaths, call them into the water with our songs and our bodies.  But the truth is that we are the ones who are seduced.  We are the ones who fall in love.  Sometimes it’s a young sailor, brave-faced and broad-chested.  Sometimes it’s a fisherman, stoic and hard-working and sea-loving.  And sometimes it’s an ex-swimmer with purple streaks in her hair.

    no more, I had told my sisters eighty years ago.  There would be no more death because we couldn’t stop ourselves from falling in love.

    I tell myself none of those men were swimmers.  None of those men were strong enough.  It will be different this time.  It will.  It has to be.

    So I ask, “how long can you hold your breath?”

    And her face splits into a smile.  “As long as it takes.”

     

  9. WAKE UP, ROSE by Natalie C. Parker

    image

                Rose stood at the window watching mist rise from the valley beneath the Briar Wood. Behind her, the gray-blue light of dawn gleamed off the mirror at the foot of her bed. The bone sewing needle resting on top, both uncharacteristically bloodless.

                “The sun is nearly risen,” Rose said, pressing the tips of bruised fingers against dirty glass. Grandfather left them that way to prevent Rose from accidentally catching sight of her reflection should she wake before the spell was fixed again. She should fix the spell now. It was dangerous to stand so close to reflective surfaces at this hour.

                But somewhere within the Briar Wood was the pond that had claimed her mother’s life. Grandfather had his reasons for keeping Rose away, but Grandfather was gone.

                Rose dragged her fingers across the pane leaving four clear tracks in the grime. She brought her face perilously close to them and whispered, “Wake up, Rose.”

    - - -

                “Wake up, Rose,” Grandfather said. “The sun is nearly risen.”

                He sat next to his granddaughter’s bed, a mirror in his lap and a sewing needle pressed between his fingertips. Glass and bone caught the blue-gray light of dawn and drew longing and dread from Rose like breath.

                Grandfather extended a hand and when Rose hesitated raised his heavy eyebrows dispassionately. Rose folded her frustration away and gave over her hand. With practiced movements, Grandfather selected her index finger, still pink and healing from the last time, and stuck it with the bone needle. The sting was too familiar a thing for tears.

                Blood chased the needle, rising from her fingertip like the sun. When the drop was full, Grandfather guided her hand over the mirror and with a small shake, her blood fell against the glass.

                Rose knew she shouldn’t, but still she hoped her Grandfather would tip the mirror just enough that she might catch a glimpse of herself – the curve of her chin, the folds of her ear, or perhaps the line of her hair against her forehead, any bit of her would satisfy. But Grandfather was too deft. He swept the mirror away and immediately crouched near the fireplace. His knees creaked as much as the old wooden floor, but he insisted she was too young, too reckless to perform this task on her own. Rose watched as he smeared the drop of her blood across the glass then smashed the mirror to pieces.

                For just a moment, the pieces of shattered glass clouded to full black. Then they cleared to reflect the glowing embers of last night’s fire and the stray pinks and golds of dawn.

                But no matter how Rose turned them, they would not reveal her face. No surface in the house would. Not now that the spell was sealed for another day. Tomorrow they would do it all again.

                It was the only way they knew to contain her curse.

    - - -

                She turned to the bed where the needle and mirror sat. Her fingertips ached at the sight.

                No more spells, she thought and with that she snapped the needle in two and shattered the mirror into the fireplace. Each piece reflected the soft glow of embers, winking against the floor like cat eyes.

    - - -

                When Rose was old enough to understand notions as complex as curses and beauty and revenge, Grandfather explained that she had inherited her curse from her mother, who had refused one too many men. As punishment for causing so much heartbreak, a curse was given to her such that should she ever catch sight of herself she would fall deeply in love with her own reflection.

                “But why should that be a curse?” Rose would ask. “Why shouldn’t she love herself?”

                “Because,” Grandfather explained, “it is better to give more love than you receive, and loving yourself is the most selfish thing a person can do.”

                For one wicked moment, Rose thought she would like to be selfish long enough to discover the color of her eyes.

                Grandfather continued to explain in his measured way, always on the brink of betraying something more of himself in the cadence of his voice. He spoke of how her mother had stopped for a drink by the pond at the edge of the Briar Wood and how there she caught her reflection and feel instantly in love.

                “So she fell in love with the one person who was incapable of loving anything but herself. It was a just punishment.” Here Grandfather’s eyes seemed to lose the thread of Rose and see only the wrongs of her mother.

                “It seems cruel,” Rose spoke, searching for some sign of her Grandfather’s compassion.

                “Cruel is what she did after. Cruel is taking up with a man you know you will never love. Cruel is letting him hope,” he finished with bitterness.

                “That’s how I came to be,” Rose said, her gaze settling on a portrait of her mother and father. They both looked haunted and hollow; her mother by a love she could never satisfy and her father by the love he’d never had to begin with.

                They were not beautiful, Rose knew that, but she could see the places beauty had once lived in both of them and wondered if there were such places in herself.

                “That is how you came to suffer under the same weight,” Grandfather said, keeping his gaze away from the portrait. “And why you must never leave this place.”

    - - -

                With haste, Rose slid into her boots, unbound her hair, and raced across the valley toward the Briar Wood. The air was sharp and cool and her heart beat hot inside her chest. All her life she’d lived under the promise of danger, but now she was racing toward it.

                And it felt good.

    - - -

                The cottage was big enough for two, but with each passing day, it seemed to shrink and Rose spent more and more of her time in the fields. So long as she didn’t stray as far as the Briar Wood, Grandfather didn’t object. There was a part of her that wished he would. It would feel good to have something to struggle against that wasn’t as amorphous as her curse.

                Rose wandered with the wind, seeking reflections of herself in the world around her. This time of year, her skin was a shade darker than autumn grasses, her hair something lighter than rain-soaked earth, the tip of her nose rounded like an acorn. In the spring, she’d find herself in other ways. In the straw of a bird’s nest or the shape of oak leaves.

                It was a quiet, secluded valley, welcoming few strangers but those delivering what little Rose and Grandfather required to live. No news from the world beyond the wood ever reached Rose’s ears, but though she didn’t know much of the nearest villages and towns, they knew of the cursed girl who lived in the valley of the Briar Wood. And around the time of her sixteenth birthday, they began to seek her out: young men eager to dispel the curse and win her hand and favor.

                This is how Rose learned that it was not her beauty but her curse that made her an object of desire.

                One after another, the young men came and it was always the same.

                “Sweet, resplendent Rose,” they would say, one hand pressed to their hearts, the other gripping a sword or bow or dagger. “I have come to rescue you from this curse and marry you.”

                At first, Rose would give them a smile, but over time she discovered her smiles became weary.  “There is no need to break the curse,” she would tell them. “I manage it quite well. It’s easier than you might think.”

                And here their bravado would falter. “But a curse should be defeated. Broken.”

                And she would answer, “And if I would like to keep my curse? It was a gift from my mother, of course. Would you marry me with my curse?”

                The answer was always no.

                Until the day a woman appeared at the edge of the Briar Wood. She was tall and weathered with silk-thin wrinkles around her dark eyes and hair like storm clouds. She wore leather armor over strong arms and carried a sack over her shoulder so Rose nearly dismissed her as a merchant, but the woman came directly to her and smiled.

                “You are Rose of the Briar Wood,” she said and there was a gentleness to her voice went to the very heart of Rose.

                “Who are you?” Rose asked.

                “A friend,” replied the woman. “I hope.”

                “Are you a witch? Have – have you come to dispel my curse?” Rose asked. It had never occurred to her that a woman might try, but perhaps she had been foolish in her assumptions. Grandfather was a wealthy man. He had much more to offer than her hand in marriage.

                But the woman only shook her head and with her smile still on her face, she asked, “How do you know you are cursed?”

    - - -

                She didn’t hesitate when she reached the edge of the valley. She ran as though her feet knew where to land and where to run. Trees towered above her, birds called from every direction, and the briars for which the wood was named sprawled across the forest floor. Everything around her seemed to cry out for more – more sunlight, more song, more space.

                Rose wanted more. She wanted more than her cottage, more than her needles, more than her curse. 

    - - -

                “Wake up, Rose,” Grandfather said. “The sun is nearly risen.”

                He sat by her bed with mirror and needle, grayer now than he’d been the day before. How many times had they done this? How much of his life had he spent safeguarding the world for her? Questions filled her mind like dandelion seed.

                “Grandfather,” Rose said before offering her hand. “How do you know mother passed the curse to me?”

                Grandfather sat back as though she’d pricked him with a needle. “It isn’t a question worth asking if the answer might destroy you.”

                “But Grandfather,” she pressed, knowing it was the question and not the answer that would eventually grind her into dust.

                “It isn’t worth asking,” he repeated and this time his fingers tightened on the mirror until Rose heard a small crack.

                But Rose was not afraid. She said, “Grandfather, I am old enough now to manage this on my own. Give me the needle.”

                Beneath his beard, there was an emotion that caused his jaw to clench. Grief or pride or something else that looked like reluctance and submission all at once. He nodded and passed the needle to her small fingers so that she might fix the spell on her own.

                The next morning, Grandfather didn’t appear by her bed at dawn. There was only the mirror and needle. Rose pricked her own finger and smashed the mirror into the fireplace all without letting her eyes betray her by seeking a reflection. After, she joined Grandfather at the breakfast table for eggs and bitter tea. It went this way for many mornings until one day, Grandfather did not come for his eggs.

                Rose found him still in bed, his chest unmoving beneath the tangle of his beard.

                “Grandfather,” she said, and her tears warmed her cheeks and chilled her heart. “Now, I am alone. Who will I love now if not you?”

                But Grandfather had no more answers for her questions and for a moment Rose was wicked and thought her Grandfather a very selfish man for taking so much with him.

    - - -

                The pond lay in the lee of the wood, surrounded by white and yellow daffodils. It was still and clear and inviting.

                Rose drew a deep breath. Here were the question and answer laid out before her. With another breath, Rose stepped into the sunlight and leaned over the flat pool.

                It took a moment for her eyes to recognize the shape of her face, but once they did, she couldn’t fathom looking away. She was beautiful. She knew this not because of her Grandfather’s fear, her suitor’s desperation, or her parents’ heartbreak, but because the girl in the pond smiled up at her.

                “You are not a curse,” she said, her lips hovering just above the water.

                The girl in the pond had eyes as grey as the dawn and lips as ruddy as cardinal feathers, she had round cheeks and a long nose, but it was the way she smiled that captivated Rose.

                “And neither are you,” the girl in the water said.

                “I love you,” they said together.

                And then Rose dipped her head and pressed her lips to the girl in the water. 

     
  10. hanginggardenstories:

    Amber is up on Monday, and after that we’re starting our 4th cycle of GIFtion. We’ve decided that this time we’re picking a theme and the theme is WATER. 

    So! Lend us your GIFs! Your water GIFs to be specific. Your favorite water GIFs to be even more specific. Inspire us! Entertain us! Challenge us! We’re perfectly capable of picking on our own, but we think it’s more fun if you help us out.

    Whaddya say? GIF us below?

    Don’t forget to give us your GIFs pleaseandthankyou!