he says, "my lady looks perturbed"
(the light is in your eyes, Colleen)
When she lifts the bucket, her heart jumps so suddenly in her chest that she almost screams, and she has to press her hand to her mouth to make sure the cry won't escape her lips.
Lying between the bucket and the well is the book she saw yesterday. Quickly, without thinking, she tucks it in the small space between the well and the stone wall around the garden and then stands, turning to make sure Delia didn't see anything. As she lowers the bucket in the well her hands tremble so badly that the rope keeps slipping from her fingers.
Later, while Delia is at the market, she walks back to the garden and slips the book out of its hiding place, hands shaking still. Bent over near the wall, she opens it as her heart hammers in her temples and quickly turns the gibberish-covered pages, looking for the picture. When she finally finds it something inside her crumples again, the rip in her chest suddenly tearing more than ever. For the briefest moment something surfaces in her mind. The colors on the paper are bright, intense; the fish-tailed creature looks at her with a sideway glance, her hair a sunset-orange waterfall. She can't quite make out the eyes, shadowed. The silvery scales shine like the reflection of the sun near the horizon.
Maybe you've heard about mermaids, the women of the sea.
Ondine closes the book, after staring at it for who knows how long. She slips it back near the wall and stands, leaning on the stone. Her head is full of voices, but she can't make them out: they're like ghosts, vague out of focus shapes, disgregating when she tries to look at them directly but lingering still, like the spots left in your eyes when you look at a light for too long. Blinking won't make them go away.
"Are you alright?"
She nods even if she isn't sure, barely managing not to jump. She turns, still grasping the edge of the well. Ash frowns.
"Are you sure? You're pale."
Ondine nods again. She looks down. "I think I remember something," she whispers, her voice quivering on the last syllables.
"Well, that's good, isn't it?" he says. Not replying, Ondine stares at her feet. Only after a while she manages to answer: "I'm not sure".
Ash walks closer. "Why? Did you remember something bad?"
She shakes her head. "No. I didn't really… remember anything clearly, it's just…"
She stops. Ash waits. "Just what?" he exhorts her, when she doesn't go on.
"It's strange," Ondine replies. "My head is full of all these things and I can't… I can't understand them, they don't even make sense. It's just a lot of chaos."
"Well, but you're just starting to remember, it'll be clearer soon," Ash tries. She bites her lip.
"I still don't like it in the meantime."
"When did it start?"
"Yesterday." She doesn't have to think about it. "When we went down at the harbor. When you asked me if I was alright."
Ash frowns. "Did you know those girls? Or maybe you knew some object they were selling?"
"No," she answers, but then stops and corrects herself: "Maybe. I don't know. For a moment I thought one of them looked familiar, but it was only a moment, and then…"
She looks down again, thinking about the book. About the lines on the paper, almost alive. For a moment it's as if she could feel its physical presence behind the well, like a sudden pang of pain.
"Then?" Ash wants to know. Ondine keeps staring at the ground.
"I don't know." A whisper.
Ash hesitates for a moment. "Maybe you should rest a little," he says then. She shrugs slightly.
"Maybe," she replies, not quite thinking it would help. Ash gently places a hand on her arm, as if saying come. Ondine follows him for a couple steps, then halts.
He gives her a surprised look. "What?"
"I'll show you something," she says. Her heart races as she turns. She walks back to the well and kneels to take the book from its hiding. Ash follows, crouching behind her.
"Somebody left it here for me to find," Ondine tells him. She brushes the cover with her fingertips and for a moment it feels alive under her touch. "It's what one of those girls was showing to me yesterday. It was weird, she seemed to really want me to see it, like… like she was expecting some reaction. I don't know why."
"What's it about?" Ash asks. Ondine shrugs and opens it at a random point, showing him two pages covered in strange symbols.
"I can't read it."
"Then why show it to you?"
She bites her lip and turns the pages, stopping on the fish-tailed woman. "She wanted me to see this."
Ash leans over a bit more to see better, leaning his chest against her shoulder, and observes the drawing for a handful of moments. She can feel him breathe. Finally he shrugs and straightens his back, puzzled. "I don't understand. What's that supposed to be?"
Ondine turns and leans her back against the wall, sitting on the ground. She clutches the book to her chest. "She told me about these creatures. She said there isn't a word for them in our language, but there are legends about mermaids. They're creatures of the sea."
Ash looks at her, without saying anything. She swallows.
"They can move gracefully in the water and they can sing like the ocean," she finishes, and for some reason she feels a strange pain as she does, as if something stung her, a pang of longing for something she doesn't remember. Ash keeps looking at her. Then he shakes his head a little, frowning eyebrows and a confused look on his face, and sits next to her. Ondine turns, trying out a smile that doesn't quite come out right.
"Do you believe in legends?"
"Well, I know someone who can move extremely gracefully in the water, for sure." he replies, then looks away, to nothing in particular.
"Would you go back?" he asks after a handful of moments. "If… if somehow you were one of those creatures, I mean. Would you leave and go back to the sea?"
She doesn't answer immediately. She thinks about the pain she feels when she leaves the sea behind, the whispers behind her back in the village, Gary talking about bad luck. Dry soil sticking to her hands, lingering black under her fingernails, annoying. She keeps brushing them on her skirt for hours even after having washed them.
"This is not my place," she replies, looking down.
Ash doesn't reply. When she looks back at him, Ondine sees a shadow darkening his eyes. Would you want me to stay?, she thinks, without finding the courage to say it out loud, and he stands and lets out a bitter sigh.
"It's just stories," he says, sharp, without looking at her; the sound of something breaking. It's like he's telling it to himself. "They're not true."
But legends always have some truth to them.
Ondine tightens her hands around the leather-bound cover, looking at him. She thinks about his breath, when she lied next to him on the beach and nothing else mattered more than that. Would you stop me, if I were to go? Would you try to convince me to stay?
Would that be enough?
"Maybe they are," she retorts. "How do you know what's just a story and what isn't? You— you don't even know me. No one here does."
Ash gives her a funny look, frowning a little. "I do know you."
"Not really," she replies, shaking her head. "I'm the girl you found on the beach. That's it, that's the whole story. And you keep saying that it's enough, even if I don't remember anything else, but maybe it's not. Not for me."
"What does this have to do with—" he looks for the word "those mermaids, or whatever?"
"I don't know," she snaps. Something in her chest is burning. "I don't know anything, that's the whole point. I don't even know if this is me or… just a story about me you all made up. I can't tell."
She sees it unravel in front of her eyes. The girl on the beach, without a past; a narrative she doesn't feel like she fits into, weighing on her like her name and her clothes, all wrong or at least not-quite-right, shaped around her while she had no choice to make, because it's hard to choose anything when you don't know yourself.
Ash shrugs his shoulders, not understanding. "So... what? You still don't remember, right? What else would you do?"
"I don't know," she repeats. She looks away, hurting.
For a while there's silence. "So you'd go?" Ash asks in the end. He's not looking at her either, his eyes scanning the garden. She shrugs, that new fire still burning.
"Maybe I should. Who wants me here after all? Gary, all those people from the village. They'd be happier if I was gone."
"I— " he starts. Then stops, dropping whatever he was about to say. "...They don't really want you gone. And I told you about Gary, didn't I? You just... have to look past all the crap he says."
She clutches her book. "Maybe I don't care to."
(Would that be enough...?)
Ash doesn't say anything. He keeps looking away, his hands tightening into fists for a moment. Tell me you'd stop me, she thinks, feeling those words boil in her chest. Tell me you'd care enough to try at least. But he doesn't, and her not-quite-yet rage just keeps seething inside her, unnamed still. It chokes her, burning her lips from the inside.
They remain in silence, the space between them suddenly wide.
have you come, then, to rescue me?
At night she hears the sea calling her. She tries to ignore it, pressing her hands on her ears, and for a while it works; but the call creeps under her skin. It echoes in her bones like drums. She turns on her back, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling while inside her a storm rages.
Finally she stands, her breath racing and shallow. She lingers by her bed for a few moments, arms wrapped around herself; then, slowly, she takes off Delia's nightgown and gets dressed, careful not to make noise. She puts on her corset, her dress, her shoes; for a moment she holds an edge of Ash's cape, that he left hanging from a hook near her bed as if it were hers now, then leaves it. She hesitates a while still, not quite knowing what to do, then walks to the door and stops with her hands already on the latch. She swallows, a weight in her throat. She turns back and on tiptoes she walks to Ash's bed.
In the moonlight she watches him sleep, his blanket tangled around his waist and his arms spread across the bed. His breath is calm and quiet for once. She draws closer, jumping every time the floorboards creak under her feet, and gently readjusts his blankets. As she leans over him for a moment she thinks of leaving a kiss on his forehead, among the messy strands of black hair. But she bites her lips, and doesn't.
Something aches in her chest as she straightens her back and turns away. She walks back to the door without looking back and frees it from the latch.
The night air is cold and stinging. She shivers and sinks her head into her shoulders, closing the door behind. Silently, she waves a goodbye (forever?) to Ash and Delia, and the house that welcomed her.
As she walks through the garden, again she feels the presence of the book, like a needle on her skin. She thinks about taking it with her, but she doesn't need to. Those strange words are following her anyway, twisting in her mind like the coils of a snake, in search of their meaning.
When she leaves the village the call becomes stronger. It's not only the sea: the voices she heard two nights ago merge with the waves, singing the same song. Those voice came from the sea too, she's suddenly sure of it. There's no other way they could know its melody so well.
She hears them more clearly when she gets to the beach. The merchants' boat stands out majestic among those of the fishermen, casting a gray shadow on the shimmery sand. The moonlight traces its shape and for a moment, not longer than a blink, it looks different. Withered, crumbling, a clump of gray rags in place of the colorful curtains. Did she dream that? The hull is shiny again, the cloth multicolored, the prow towering lean and proud. She walks closer, cautious, and again she recognizes the shape of a woman in the wood, and then the coils of a snake. The empty eyes seem to follow her for a second.
The song comes from behind her. She turns: three silhouettes sit on the rocks, gleaming in the moonlight. They're the ones singing. When she walks closer, her breath stuck in her lungs, she recognizes the loud colors of their hair and their clothes.
"I knew you would come," says the blonde girl, leaning forward and resting her chin on her hands. The song stops. "Even if I was starting to fear that you wouldn't be here in time."
Ondine shakes her head, confused. "In time?"
Without replying, the girl stands and walks towards her. "Did you like my gift?" she asks, adjusting her golden hair behind one shoulder.
"The book?" Ondine replies. She shakes her head again. "I don't understand. What do you want?"
The girl smirks, not saying anything. Behind her, the blue-haired one stretches on the rocks, as if trying to get more comfortable between the blankets of a bed. The cloth of her dress, a bright green, creases around her body.
"Do you not remember anything?" she says. She looks like the blonde girl: she has the same chin, the same cheekbones, the same nose. The same smirk on her lips. "Do you not feel anything when you're close to the sea? When you walk away from it?" The other one, with sunset-pink hair, smothers a laugh against her palm. "Do you not feel out of place inside a house, wearing that dress?"
Ondine bites her lip, hard enough to hurt. She wraps her arms around herself: inside her body something is screaming or awaking. The blonde girl walks closer and lays a hand on her shoulder, leaning over to whisper in her ear: "No? And yet I though you'd have remembered by now, little sister."
It's as if with those two words something suddenly wedged, violently flew back in place. She still cannot see the full picture, but the splinter are sharp edged and vivid, trying to cut into her skin. For a moment she almost screams stop, make it stop, but she knows it wouldn't.
The blonde girl moves behind her and covers her eyes with her hands. When she takes them back it's as if she could see through the outlines: she still sees the other two girls sitting on the rocks, and the bright, almost aggressive colors of their clothes; and yes she recognizes different shapes at the same time, fish tails coiling on the rocks and bodies covered in silvery scales, wet hair sticking to bare shoulders like seaweed. And the boat is really a wreckage, a ghost ship, dead gray planks barely holding together and colorless rags, pale and shapeless like they've been underwater forever, holding their lost treasures.
When she blinks the outline become solid again. The boat is shiny wood, the tails turned to dresses. She turns and for a brief moment the blonde girl's eyes hold something different, too, something wild, something nonhuman under the surface.
"What—" it takes her a while to find her voice again, her words choking her. "What… how can this be…?"
Daisy—now she knows that's her name, as if she always knew, as if her name had been waiting inside her under a thin layer of sand and a wave suddenly swept it away—grabs her by the shoulders and makes her spin. "Many things are possible," she says. Out of the corner of her eye Ondine sees her nodding towards the village, barely there in the dark of the night. "Many more than these small creatures without magic could ever imagine."
She rests her chin on her shoulder. In front of her the other two are girls again, yet now the trick doesn't look quite as real: the outlines look frail, fragmented in places, as if now that she saw things for what they really are it were easier to find the glitches.
"Not everything you see is real. Some things are but illusions."
Ondine shakes her head. "But I saw you out of the water. You're out of the water right now. How could it be if it's just an illusion?"
"Illusions don't necessarily only trick the sight," Daisy replies. "Think of it like a costume, if you will. Something that masquerades your true shape. It's not what you really are, but it looks real, until you take it off."
She still can't understand. The fog in her head has started thinning, but some of it still lingers thick. She swallows.
"Did you come to save me?"
Daisy bursts into laughter. "To save you? From what, Ondine?" she scoffs, using the name that was never hers, isn't, will never be. "You came here on your own will. Look at you: you dried yourself, you wore a corset, a dress, shoes. You look almost like one of them."
"I'm not one of them," she retorts. But she thinks about Ash, and Delia, and her voice cracks a little before she gets to the end of the sentence. Daisy tightens her hands on her shoulders.
"Then come back," she blows next to her ear. "You wanted to come. You thought you'd be happy here, that these humans would welcome you, that you'd be just like them. That you'd be better off if you ran. But it was never like that, was it? Did you ever feel like this was your place? Did you ever stop missing the sea?"
She looks down, teeth sinking in her lip harder. The back of her eyes sting.
"Come back," Daisy whispers. "Come home with us. We can break the spell that turned you into a human. Ours is just an illusion, it won't last long, but you… you gave up your magic to become this. Without us you'll be trapped in this body forever."
Part of her wants to say yes, and it pushes so strongly she almost doubles over from the pain of it. Part of her wants nothing more than to dissolve in the waves as if her human body had been nothing but a dream; part of her wants to scream yes, please, bring me back home. It's a big part, almost all of her. And yet there's something else. A tiny corner of her head and chest that screams even louder.
"Well?" Daisy loses her patience. "Is that what you want? Stay here until you'll get old and die without ever really seeing the sea again?"
She cannot answer. Lily, the pink-haired girl, laughs and gracefully jumps down from the rocks, walking closer.
"She fell in love," she says. She smiles, sour. "Our little sister fell in love. With a human. Isn't that so?"
"That doesn't mean there's something for her there," Daisy snaps, interrupting her. Her hands grasp her shoulders like claws. "You could be here a thousand years and this still wouldn't be your home. And your beloved… he'll probably be scared of you, when he finds out what you are. Or disgusted. Humans are stupid creatures. What they don't understand repulses them."
"Ash is not like that! He's different," she retorts, sharp. Daisy laughs.
"Look at how passionately she defends him. You're right after all, she really is in love." She lets her go and walks around her, stopping in front of her. She shakes her head, with a cruel fondness. "It's not worth it. Would you forget yourself, give everything up, all for a human boy that won't ever understand what you are?"
Her chest feels like a stone. It's not that, she would answer, it's not just that, but it's only a half-born thought still, not quite free from the fog of her mind. Daisy grabs her by the arm, trying to drag her with them, and she hesitates and then follows. In front of them the sea seems to open, longing, welcoming, calling her home.
She jumps, turning back. Ash runs to them, stopping to catch his breath. Angered, Daisy tugs harder at her arm, trying to drag her away; but this time she fights back.
"Ondine," Ash says again. He looks at her and then at her sisters, confused. "What's happening?"
She looks away. "My name's not Ondine," she replies, sharper than she meant to, and then regrets her tone a moment later. Ash remains silent for a moment, taken aback, then walks closer.
"I woke up and you were nowhere to be found," he says. "What's happening? Where are you going?"
Tears burn trapped in her eyelashes. She looks up; before she can find anything to say, though, Daisy jerks at her arm again, almost making her lose balance.
"Come," she hisses. She shakes her head, fighting still.
"Wait," she replies. In her chest something feels like a tearing. "Not yet."
She frees her arm from her sister's grip. Daisy looks at her, her eyes sparkling with rage.
"Our illusion won't last for long. If you don't come back with us tonight, you never will."
"Then I won't," she snaps. Saying it is like a punch in her gut, it makes her stagger. And yet somehow it feels… not right, not quite, but better. Fitting somehow. "I won't, if it has to be like this. Go back without me."
Ash lays a hand on her arm, soft. "What's happening?" he asks again. She turns to him, barely seeing him through her tears.
"They weren't legends," she tells him. "They weren't just stories, it's all true. But I don't want to go yet."
Not like this, not without being able to explain. Not leaving more hurt behind. Not passively admitting that she was wrong, that her sisters were always right, that she cannot be her own person away from them.
Not without choosing, again, not bowing her head and accepting her fate. She'll choose, painful as it might be.
Her whole life she's been in her older sisters' shadow, until she ran away and lost herself. She won't make the same mistake now that she remembered who she is. She made a choice once, and it left her bruised and hurting, but it was hers. She'll decide if it was the wrong one, not them.
"Enough of this nonsense," Daisy snaps. She grabs her again while Lily takes her other arm and the third, Violet, stands to reach them. "You're coming home with us whether you want it or not."
She tries to break free, but the three of them together are strong enough to drag her away. Ash tries to stop them.
"Let her go!"
"Ash," she calls. Daisy buries her nails in her skin, hurting her.
"He won't help you," she hisses. "He won't come to get you back, he won't dare to. The sea scares him. Doesn't it?"
Ash's hands tighten to trembling fists. But he does stop when he reaches the shore: he looks at the water with wide eyes and she sees that yes, he's scared. For a moment she sees him again with his leg stuck in the net, as she cut her fingers to try to get him out, and she knows he's seeing that too. Daisy laughs as water soaks her dress first to her knees and then to her waist, and the sea rises in a wave, the highest she's ever seen, and suddenly the illusion gives and her sisters are mermaids, or not-quite mermaid, creatures of the ocean with no human word to call them, silvery scales shining under the surface of the water. They pull her down, down, and she feels her own body start to give, too, stripped of the magic that held it together, her sisters' magic stronger than her will.
She tries to fight, to not let the sea swallow her, but her sisters' hands pull at her dress, her arms, her hair. She opens her mouth to scream—not like this, not yet, I don't want it like this—and water fills her throat and her chest as her heart throbs. Only a few more moments and she won't be able to fight anymore, she will become water too.
The song of the sea is stronger than anything.
Then arms grab her by the waist and pull her up. The surface opens up above her head and she coughs and splutters and sobs, clinging to Ash's shirt.
"Go, quick!" he tells her, helping her climb the rocks. She stumbles over her dress, coughing, as Ash tries to push her out of the water. Her fingernails break as she grasps the rocks with every ounce of her strength. She turns to help him climb too, and Ash takes her hand, but before he can haul himself out of the sea the waves swell and boil, full of her sisters' furious song, and slam into him, throwing his body against the rocks.
"Ash!" she cries out. She holds his hand tighter, trying not to let it slip away. Water almost swallows her and the rocks whole. She manages not to let go, her fingers digging into the skin of his wrist. When the wave draws back he coughs and groans in pain. She sees the sea swell up again and quickly she grabs him by the waist, her dress tearing under her knees, and pulls him up before the waves can crush him again.
"Are you alright?" she asks, holding him tight.
She feels him nod. The sea boils again and again rises to hit them. She hugs him as tight as she can, as if her small, breakable human body were enough to protect him from the fury of the ocean.
"Stop it!" she shouts, against his shoulder, rage swelling red in her words. "I won't come back! Not like this! Let me choose for once!"
The sea is calling her, tugging at every bit of her body and her mind. But with her real name and her memory something else awoke in her; something storming, something burning, tired of letting her story be written by someone that's not her.
"I'll choose this time! I'll stay!"
The waves scream their rage one more time, then suddenly falls quiet. She looks at them trembling, waiting for them to rise again at any moment with enough strength to drag them under, where Ash will drown and she'll become once again what she ran from. But the sea remains calm. The moon, low, shines on the surface flat as a mirror.
She lets Ash go, slowly. "Are you alright?" she asks again, her voice shaking. "Are you hurt?"
He shakes his head. "Just a couple bruises, I think," he says. He looks at her frowning, as if seeing her for the first time.
"Are you actually a mermaid?"
"I was," she whispers, and tears overflow her eyes again as soon as she looks down at the sudden realization of what she lost. But not lost, maybe—not all of it. She can't go back to the sea, but she still hears the call, still feels her bond. That was never lost, not even when she forgot herself.
Ash gently lays a hand on her cheek, brushing wet hair away.
"Why didn't you want to go back?"
She bites her lip, and finally she tells him everything, all at once: "I wasn't happy there. My sisters, they always thought they knew what was best for me, and I always wanted to get away. That's why I left, now I remember. I forgot, but now I remember. I wanted to be myself for once, finally. So I used a spell, an ancient magic that can only be used once, and I gave up my tail for this body. That's how I came here. And maybe it was stupid, but at least it was me, and I don't know if I'll be happy here either but I can try, and—"
Hesitating for a moment, she looks up again, and attempts a tearful smile.
"...and you're such an idiot, taking the boat with a storm like that and all! How am I supposed to leave you?"
He blinks. Half laughing, half sobbing, she leans her forehead against his chest. "I'm staying," she says again. He remains still for a moment and then wraps his arms around her in a clumsy, inexperienced, sudden hug. "I'm staying."
Ash waits for her to stop crying, his hands stroking her back. "What's your name?" he asks then.
She looks up and wipes her eyes with her hand, sniffling. "Misty."
He smiles. "It's a nice name," he says. "Fits you better than Ondine."
Misty manages to smile back again, her eyes still wet. She rests her head on his chest again and he hugs her once more, burying his face in her hair. They stay like that for a while, and all around them the sea keeps singing.
A/N: well, that was it. I hope you enjoyed this story! Me, I would actually have changed a few things as I translated it (I wrote it a couple years ago), namely about "Ondine"'s characterization, but it would probably have involved rewriting a good half of the story, so in the end I left it be and only reworded some things here and there.
A few notes:
- I kind of made up my own mermaid lore, borrowing from different depictions and tales of mermaids and selkies.
- There are a few reasons why I picked the name Ondine for Misty: it fit, ondines being a sort of mermaids and whatnot; it's actually her name in the French version of the anime (as petites sorcieres also pointed out in a review); it's a homage to one of my favorite movies, Ondine by director Neil Jordan, about a modern day fisherman who finds a woman in his net. Ondine is the name she gives herself. Lastly, I liked that it sounded vaguely like the "Colleen" from the song.
- Speaking of her name, I don't know if it's actually noticeable, but she's never called that when she's in the water (when she goes for a swim and when she rescues Ash). It was an attempt to reflect the fact that she's the closest to her true self in those scenes. Anyway, finally getting to use her actual name in that last line was the most satisfying thing ever.
- I don't actually know anything at all about fishing. Or boats. It probably shows.
Thank you for reading and reviewing! And sorry for the occasional terrible English. I'm still learning (and apparently I have huge issues spotting typos in my own writing).