This month’s chatterbox subject is ‘water,’ and so I decided to open up a document and let the word ‘water’ take me where it would. This was the result.
She caught the intoxicating scent on the wings of the crosswind. It was the smell of grass and sunlight and sweat, and it meant he was coming. The rush of excitement was so tangible she felt she could almost clasp it with her webbed fingers as she left the warm safety of the ocean’s depth, trading it for the lonely shallow shoals near the cliffs. Pulling herself up onto the only rock large and flat enough to comfortably sit on, she waited, watching. Above, a flock of gulls cried out indignantly at her presence. She ignored them. He was coming.
The sunlight baked across her back and the salt spray was barely enough to moisten her scales, but still she waited – and then, there! A glimpse of white, a scattered pebble, and he came out to the shore, bucket in hand. He collected the mussels that clustered there, once a week. She sometimes wondered what he did with them – did he eat them? Sell them? Pry out the hearts and create with the shells? But she never really cared, as long as she could watch him.
No. No more watching. Today, she had promised herself – today she would approach him. He smelled so beautiful, and his legs were an endless source of fascination. She could ask what it felt like to move on them; if they felt like tree trunks, or as light and effortless as her own tail.
She slid back into the water; every scale, every pore sighing with relief, drinking in the waves as she sliced her way through the water, toward him. Sand scraped along her stomach and, finally, she had to use her hands; digging her fingers in to push forward.
Lifting her head out of the water, she saw she was close – very close. He was watching her; every kind of astonishment and wonder in his guileless, weed-green eyes. His bucket fell to the sand and tipped over, spilling out its collection of clams. He took a few unthinking, noisy steps into the water, and then stopped himself.
Even humans knew that rusalka were dangerous.
“You can’t be this far in,” he said. He did not shout, but his voice traveled across the water to her ears. It was a short distance between them. “It’s too shallow.”
Her voice was rasping and wet, unused to forming anything other than fishing calls and sharing brief exchanges with her school. “I had to speak with you.”
“Why?” He turned, seafoam splashing about his calves, dampening his rolled-up trousers, as he probed every rock and wave with his eyes. “Why do you?”
She dug her hands into the sand, pulled her weight closer. “You are so beautiful,” she said, although she had meant to say, ‘I find you interesting.’
His eyebrows rose. “How can you, a rusalka, call anything beautiful that is not your own reflection?”
“Does the sunset notice its own beauty?” she asked, looking up, wanting to catch the color of his eyes again.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I’ve never asked one.”
She reached up and smoothed an untamed strand of her seaweed hair. “What is your name?”
“Ivan,” he responded, crouching down; oblivious to his now thoroughly-soaked pants. “What’s yours? What do they call you?”
“I have no name,” she said.
“I should give you one.”
“So I know what to call you.”
“You cannot call me,” she told him simply. “I would never hear you.”
“How did you know I was here, if not because you heard me?”
“I smelled you,” she said. “You smell like…like land.”
“Land.” He laughed softly. “Is it a good thing, then? Because you smell like the sea. I suppose we cannot help carrying our roots with us – even if those roots are made of water.”
She loved his voice. It was better than the clicks of dolphins or the deep rumbles of thunder under the stormy swells – but the sand was quickly leaving the glass, and she had only so much time. “I wanted to ask you a…” She struggled to find the word. “Favor.”
“Favor?” His voice was surprised, but not unkind. “What sort of favor?”
“I’m dying,” she said, without any self-pity or melodrama. “I want to feel the grass, but there is no grass here. Would you take me to it?”
“You want to die on grass? Won’t that – kill you sooner? Dry you out?”
“I want to,” she insisted.
He shook his head. “You can’t be dying. You’re too young.”
“No,” she said. “I am old. Much older than I look. Does a fish look old before it dies?”
He opened his mouth as if to answer, but no answer came to him. Finally, he said, “I will carry you.”
Her heart leaped between her ribs as he came closer. She dragged herself half out of the water, and Ivan put an arm around her shoulder and one underneath her tail. He grunted as he lifted her – she was heavier than he supposed – and staggered out of the water. His footsteps sank deep into the sand, and the journey back up the cliff-steps was twice as difficult with his burden, but he was compelled by her shallow breathing and small, gasping breaths to hurry.
They reached the top of the cliffs, where the thick salt-grasses grew like a sea of silver and green. The wind brushed through them, rustling the stalks into music. “We’re here,” he said.
“Put me down,” she managed to rasp. She could feel herself withering away from the inside, but her mind was too alive, her lungs too full of the smell of grass, of the warm, dry wind along her skin.
He lowered her gently to the ground. It felt sacrilegious, somehow, to place something so frail and beautiful on the common dirt – but the smile that blossomed on the rusalka’s face only made her more beautiful, more perfect.
She placed her small, scaled palm across his scabbed, weathered knuckles. “Whatever you do,” she said faintly, her voice hardly more than a distant call, “please remain this lovely.”
He had no response to that. He only nodded, searching for something to say to her.
There was a crackling sound, like paper set alight by a match, and the rusalka’s body stiffened. The color leeched away, into the dirt; and the next gust scattered her remains like ashes in the wind. Ivan sat back in thoughtful silence and watched, as the remains of the rusalka blew away, toward the ocean, and toward the sunset.