Rusalka is a reimagining of the traditional Russian myth of the water nymph – or mermaid – of the same name. Depending which version of the legend you consult, Rusalka herself is variously an undead spirit, a lost soul, or a seductress bent on revenge. When you’ve read this short story, you’ll know which aspect of her character appealed to me most.
Rusalka falls into my “nearly sold” collection of short stories. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I did sell it, but, for reasons I won’t go into here, withdrew it before it went to print. I liked the story then, and like it still, which is why I’ve decided to publish it here.
Oh, and if you have to hand a copy of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon by Antonín Dvořák, I recommend you play it while reading. It’s the music that was in my head when I wrote the story. If you pick up only a fraction of its gorgeous, haunting melancholy from this snippet of fiction, I’ll be content.
I am Rusalka and you are mine.
See my pool, here, its water smooth like pewter beneath the rising moon’s flat grey light. I sit at my pool’s edge. My tail is rooted in its waters. I fling back my head and sing to the stars in their wild round. The moonlight turns my face to ash.
The ground about me is all snow and silver needles. Taiga trees cower close to the soil, their growth stunted by endless winter. Winter is all I remember, all I now will ever know. I am rooted here so that I cannot leave. I can never leave this place, my pool. Above me, the stars are free to turn. But I can never leave.
The moon, and my grief, and my pain; these are all that are left to me.
Until you come.
My man brought me here, long ago. He carried me, even though then I had legs. I let him carry me, because the touch of his strength was the taste of his love. I laughed and let him run his hands from one end of my legs to the other. He carried me over his shoulder; my long, braided hair trailed down his back. I let my legs move where they willed, and his hands ran on.
He came to the pool and built a fire. He made a mark beside the fire and stabbed his hunting knife into the frozen soil. To the hilt of his knife he tied a cord. The other end of the cord he tied to my ankle.
‘You may wander as far as the cord will allow you,’ he said. ‘But no further. I will be back before sundown. Be ready for me then. Do not try to follow me.’
I watched him stride away through the trees. Beside their stunted forms he was a giant, majestic. Something inside me burned like a coil of flame; I pressed my hands down into my belly and sang his name over and over. The fire spat like a wildcat. I let the flames draw sweat from my face even as the snow sucked heat from my back. I was hot and cold and everything between.
No wonder, for it was my wedding day.
The sun had fallen behind the trees. A cold wind pierced the taiga; the snow danced. I lay in the snow, cold now the fire had died. Far away, wildcats screeched. My legs were numb and tears had frozen to my cheek. I had wept for my man, who had walked into the taiga and not returned.
‘What kind of wife are you,’ the voice of my ancestors said, deep inside my belly, ‘that you would let your man die? Go after him. Save him.’
‘How can I save him?’ I said. ‘I am not strong.’
The voice of my ancestors said no more. There I lay, listening to the dreadful wildcat song, exploring my grief.
Then, without me asking, my legs moved.
My legs stood me upright and walked me across the clearing. When the cord at my ankle pulled tight, my legs tugged and tugged until the hunting knife came free of the frozen soil. They waited while I bent to pick up the knife. I untied the cord, slipped the blade between my belt and my skin.
Then my legs carried me away into the trees, following the footprints of my man.
I walked until the sun was full gone and the moon was a vast climbing eye. The trees clutched at the moon like eager children. The stars cavorted around the moon, urging her higher.
My man’s footprints led my legs up an icy slope. Many times my feet slipped and I fell to the ground. Each time I pulled myself up and let my legs carry me on. Soon I reached the top of the slope. Beyond was a valley filled with great beasts. I had never seen their like. They were black and huge like moving boulders, shaggy with fur. White tusks curled from their jaws, and from the middle of their heads hung long, probing things of hair and flesh. Were these obscenities tongues or malformed limbs? I did not wait to find out, for at that moment I saw my man.
He was riding on the back of one of the monsters. He was not alone. He was with a woman I knew.
All the men liked this woman because she was slender and aloof and walked with a tease. My man had never once glanced at her, or so it had always seemed to me. But now he was naked in her arms, and her legs were tight around the small part of his back, and his hands were opening her wrap and lifting up her breasts, and she was rising up on him like the bright grey moon, and the face of my man was lighting up with the golden power of her. And all the while the ground was like thunder beneath the herd, which had come from the north and was moving south as it cropped the scant grass from where it poked through the tundra. Tomorrow the beasts would be gone. But I and my new grief would remain.
My legs took me into the herd. The beasts passed me like moving mountains, but they were slow and clumsy and I was small and agile. I ran between their legs until I had reached the beast on which the two lovers rode. I lifted the knife and plunged it into the belly of the beast. The beast stopped, let out a mighty bellow, but already I was climbing. I hauled myself up, gripping first the knife, then handfuls of the beast’s stinking fur, now pulling the knife out, now stabbing it again, each stab an arm’s reach higher up the beast’s enormous flank. The blood of the beast painted my arms, coursed down my body, wrapped my legs in liquid heat. My legs whipped me aloft, burning.
How must I have looked to them? Two bright eyes rising up over the curve of the beast’s trembling spine. A red-bodied demon come to win souls. A witch with a moonlit blade.
I seized one of the woman’s legs, moving before she could move. I slit it from hip to ankle. My man’s hunting knife was sharp and cut her to the bone. The bones of her leg were white rivers in the light of the moon, and her screams were like silver. My man stood, throwing his arms wide to balance on the back of the beast, which had fallen to its knees with the pain of the wounds I had made in it. The woman fell from his lap, the flesh of her leg grinning wide. I pushed the knife into the curve beneath her belly and dragged it up to the branching of her ribs. She grunted and rolled off the back of the beast. As she fell, her insides flew out of her like wings.
But she did not fly.
I turned to my man. He opened his mouth but could not speak. So I cut the words out of him.
Later, my legs carried me back to the pool. My legs carried me, and I carried my grief, still hot, still cold. My heart was both frozen and on fire. How could that be? Did all who had been betrayed feel this way? I did not know.
I looked down. Beneath me: the legs on which I rode. I watched these crimson twins slice the snow, slick red stilts, leaving their trail.
Understanding came like moonlight’s breath. I was betrayed, yes, but not by a man. Who had walked me away through the trees? Who had walked me in the steps of my man? Who had walked me up the side of a black beast, balanced me on its back?
Above my legs, my body was all hot, all cold. But below, where those crimson twins did their relentless work, there was no temperature at all.
I had reached the pool. I made my treacherous legs kneel me beside the ashes of the fire. They obeyed. I broke the ice with the knife. Then I dangled my legs through the hole, into the icy water. My legs did not protest, nor did they feel the cold. Their work was done; they were nothing now.
I lay back and went to sleep.
When I woke it was full dark and the moon had fallen behind the trees. The thin taiga branches made a veil over the face of the moon. When the wind moved the branches, the moon sobbed.
I sat up. I looked at the pool in the turning starlight. The ice had closed over my knees, had climbed like a vine the length of my thighs, had knotted cold tendrils even up to my hips. I peered deep into the ice. My legs were gone. Consumed by the cold. In their place, a silver fish’s tail swam.
I hacked at the ice with the knife and lifted my new tail clear of the winter water. The tail was slender and beautiful. A miracle. But it hurt me like a thousand bone needles.
To ease the pain, I crooned a sweet song in the voice of my ancestors until the moon’s face slipped her veil and appeared once more, low on the horizon, caught briefly between the hard ground and the thin branches of the stunted taiga trees.
As soon as the light of the moon fell on my new tail, the pain of the needles went away. I wept for the relief of it, but then the moon sank from sight and the sun rose and the pain returned.
It is down there somewhere, the knife. It lies on the bed of the pool, no longer attached to my ankle. My poor ankles are gone, and I can walk no more.
Other men come to the pool. Sometimes they come alone, sometimes they carry their women just as my man once carried me. I watch them each open the other’s wrap like a child opening a gift.
They do not see me. If I held the knife, I think, they would. I do not know how this can be. It must be magic. Or, perhaps, I am a ghost.
I watch my visitors in their pleasure. Sometimes there are tears, but most of the memories they make beside the pool are happy ones, and the men and their women leave with their hands twined. Like vines.
Sometimes I hear them talk of the night the thunder-herd came. Lately they talk about following the herd, about lifting the camp and moving it, moving south with the herd. The herd will bring good hunting, they say, and fur and skin for good clothing. And perhaps in the south there will be warm days.
So now I fear that day when the men do not come at all. I fear solitude. Above all things, that.
Tonight, all will be different.
The moon is high among the giddy stars, I flex my tail and swim to the bed of the pool. The water is sharp liquid on my skin, my scales. My hands grope in the silt until they find the knife. My fingers grasp it.
The knife is glad of my touch.
I find the surface and sit, once more, on the bank of the pool with my tail in the icy water. It is always winter here now. The moon soars.
Soon I hear your footsteps in the snow.
You are coming.
And I wait.
When you reach the pool, I will raise the knife so that the moonlight paints its blade silver. You will see the blade, and you will see me. You will want me. And the blade?
The blade will want you.
When you are close enough, I will show you how much I love you. I will delight you with the song of my mouth, with the beat of my fingers, with the chorus of my long braided hair.
Then my knife will open you. Its blade will spill you into the waters of my pool. If I am a ghost, so will you be too. But we will be together.
I hear you. You are close now. I open my mouth and sing to the moon. My song will draw you in.
I am Rusalka and you are mine.
Rusalka by Graham Edwards is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.