The Making of the Fish Women
You are the black, alluvial mud, haunting the liminal recesses of grief.
Every year, they burn your effigy and dust their lintels; every morning they braid their hair to keep your wild, searching fingers at bay. These fingers now reach to braid pretty Yulia’s hair, clumsily, for they instinctively fear the shapes of knots and straight lines.
“Doch’, ne uidite
Pozvolit Vashemu rebyonku sosat ugol’…”
“Daughter, don’t leave me
You have died
You are to be married
Feed your child coal…”
When you first heard Yulia singing, you crept slowly out of the water, twisting yourself among the reeds on the other bank. When you were submerged, the song was a golden echo that called to your patronage. Now, with nothing but air to cushion it, the sound was fragile, but no less beautiful for it. It broke in places like the gentle clink of rime ice, and you loved its billowing sweetness.
You swam closer, wondering what you would see. You were ravenous. You smelled struggle.
Yulia — you would know her as that in the weeks to come — squatted in the shallows, her face strained, hair half-undone, eyes wavering. Her hands shook as they held a sack under the water. There was mewling coming from it.
“Shh, shh,” she whispered frantically.
She held her bundle too gingerly, and it intermittently broke the surface, letting in pockets of precious air before she allowed it to sink again. They would take so long to die, and you wanted them now. You could smell warm meat and you had eaten nothing but cold fish since your making.
Yulia couldn’t do it on her own. You knew that even then. She would try — because it was her duty, because Antonin Konstantinovich told her to get rid of the barn cat’s litter or he’d do it himself, and he had boiled two alive before she had agreed.
So you swam in and snatched your prey from her unsteady fingers, and dove back into the river, knocking the kittens against the rocks to make sure the air was truly gone. You burrowed into the sack just like that, biting into the first little carcass as you drifted calmly beneath the water.
The meat was rich and warm and languid, and your belly swelled as you devoured another.
You may have stayed there all night, insensible and sated, but the golden syrup of Yulia’s song rippled through your domain once more, and it called to you in its chaos.
She would flee in terror once she saw you, but you had to be closer.
So, teeth stained with cat gut, you crouched out of the water, rising to gaze at the girl on the bank. Her dark eyes widened and her singing faltered; your own lids narrowed and you hissed your displeasure.
Everything was still but for the ever-flowing river and Yulia’s shell-pink lips. You watched her catalogue everything in a detached frenzy — your slimy naked skin, the ruffled gills adorning your neck and breasts and ribs, your shining claws. You watched her breathe, fascinated. She looked like all humans, solid and suspicious, but her eyes held the cast of wild danger and intrigue. She was not afraid — there was something closer to wonder there. You hissed again, just to watch the way she watched you. She blinked and took a breath, as if she had forgotten until now to do so.
You stood long enough for your legs to cramp and your lungs to grow dry and shaky, but you didn’t move until Konstantinovich himself crashed into the bank and grabbed Yulia hard by the unkempt braid. You dove back into the river, then, not watching him drag his stupid wife away from you.
The night was terrible and quiet. You consumed the rest of the sodden kitten carcasses and still felt lean and hollow.
You would find Yulia to be stupid and stubborn. She returned to the bank, your bank, in something disturbingly like a pattern, and its rigidity almost made you flee. She would bring her laundry, some days, or cold bottles to be chilled. She would sing her laments, and when she did not, she would talk. You would creep behind the biggest boulder in the river and press your nose to the hot stone and silently beg her to speak louder than the hiss of the water.
“Moi muzh bil menya, potomu chto Igor kosnulsya moei gruby. Ya byi s udovol’stviem bit’, esli Igor nikogda ne prikonuslya ko mne snova.”
“Ya mogu videt’ tebya, kukolka. Vyi hud i bleden, i u menya net bolshe koshki dlya vas.”
My husband beat me, because Igor touched my breasts. I would take more beatings, if Igor never touched me again.
I can see you, little doll. You are thin and pale, and I have no more cats for you.
She spoke and you listened and every word sounded like a matron’s lament. She was yours, and those words told you why: her body was rigid and human and ordered, but her heartbeat was too loud for superstition to contain.
One afternoon, she knelt in the gravel on the bank, and you watched her unweaving her thick, oil-smooth braids. At first, you did not approach, because she had stopped moving else, instead staring into the clear water and silently unraveling.
And then she was on her feet, her bodice unlaced, her skirt pooled in the grass. She held her dark head high as she stepped into the tepid, slow water, stumbling a little as she encountered a dip in the riverbed. She walked toward the middle, towards you and your sheltering rock, but she did not reach you. With a deep gasp, she disappeared beneath the water.
Startled, you darted under as well, arrowing towards her to see what could have grabbed her and dragged her down —
But her eyes were open, her fingers scrubbing at her hair, washing it, and instead of saving her, you floated lamely right into her gaze.
She did not stare in fear as she had the first time; she grinned, bubbles rushing out from behind her teeth. When Yulia surfaced, you followed, drawn close by summer-brown skin and the manic joy on her face.
As soon as you cleared water, her hands were on your face, in your hair, overwhelmingly gentle, awe and wonder in their trembling touch. Her fingers brushed your cheek, and you leaned closer to sniff them, nosing into the fragrant hollow of her wrist. She smelled of yeast and milk and blood. You pressed forward more and licked the inside of her elbow, and she yelped and then laughed like a church bell.
Yulia grabbed your face again, her dark eyes warm and wet.
“Kukolka,” she called you then, her little doll.
You were too interested in her skin to much care. You dove forward again, feeling how warm she was against you, the pads of your fingers tracing between her breasts, much larger than your own withered chest. Her hips were wide and full and you were careful not to puncture skin with your claws as you explored. Despite your care, though, fine firemarks of red wealed up on her belly. Your tongue followed your touch down.
Yulia’s smile was sweet and content as you stared up at her, your cheek pressed to her abdomen, half-submerged in the stream. You felt your lips stretch into a pleased grimace, which turned into a hiss as something struck you, your ear against her belly. Her smell was heavy, and you realized she was quickening, right there under your touch.
She was hardly afraid of your sharp bared teeth.
“Vyi dolzhni utopit’ ego dlya menya, kogda on rozhdaetsya.”
You must drown it for me, when it is born.
Because a baby is as unwanted as a sack of sick kittens to Anton Konstantinovich, when he cannot even fill his own stomach, or his wife’s. And it’s not his, Yulia told you, cradling your head softly against her as you listened to the phantom echo of breath just under her own. His brother had finally taken hold of more than her breasts, and you knew as sure as you knew why they have done this to her — for she is beautiful, so blessedly beautiful — that she had lost her honor and her place. Humans burned your kind because russalki are disorder and oppose tradition. Poor Yulia’s crime was just the same. Her fate would be, too.
You could give her better than months of shame and a dead child. You traced the gentle curve of her soft hip and when she looked down into your fey eyes and begged you to help, you curled your fingers just slightly and laid claim to everything that she is. Where she once was charred fields and swept floors, she will now be only dark water and you will help her cross the threshold.
The hope in her eyes was hot and parching, so you answered her by rising from the water and pressing your lips to hers. Yulia relaxed against you immediately with a sweet sigh, and you held her up. Rolling her head back, she grinned at you, and dark water is all you could see in her eyes. Yulia already knew what you wanted, clever thing. Your way was better. She knew it. She dug the points of her fingernails into the pulse on your neck, as if to say “right here”.
You let out a howl as you tore Yulia’s hand away, nosing down into her bare throat, smooth neck all you could see. You buried your face there, and fastened your mouth against the pulse point. The noise she made was birdlike and hopeful. Her touch flew to your ribs, whispering along the gills on your hips as she thrust her thigh between yours and she surrendered her weight to you completely. You’re stronger than they realize, until it’s too late.
You had never felt heat like her flushed body before, never felt warm to your core, and all of the light was pulsing from the places your bodies touched. Your kind are not warm — they are the dark cool of the green wood, the clear olive of river water. But her hot blood called to your chaotic soul right there, and you bit her neck to taste the ocean, and iron.
Yulia was sobbing, clutching your back and soothing over your shoulders, rocking her hips towards yours. You lifted your dripping mouth from her neck, swallowing her whimper of loss in a harsh kiss as you took her down and down.
She clawed savagely across your back. Yulia’s last breath entered your lungs from between your fastened lips. You wore her in every pore as her hair drifted like silt into your eyes.
No other part of her moved.
Now, when you place the body on the bank, you think to braid its hair.
Your fingers never will quite grasp the woven shape, but you try none the less. Maybe your maker did this to your body, too, so very long ago.
It is beautiful refuse that you leave in the mud, unmarred but for the gash on its throat and the vessels that burst around the eyes. You make one more quick mark before you leave, digging into its abdomen, burrowing up under the ribs to tug out the heart.
That is not meant for men. It is of yours alone, and you will devour it.