Lorna says if we eat enough mushrooms our bodies will learn to grow gills.
“You are what you eat,” she says, dimpling the smile she always deploys when she does not wish me to follow her explanations with any troublesome questions. “I want to be a thing that can breathe underwater.”
She leaves me no space to ask if mushrooms are things that can breathe underwater. Her petal-yellow hair swishes behind her sundress-strapped shoulder as she takes my hand, a little too tightly for comfort, and leads me out to the forest. The summer’s first chanterelles are waiting in the shade, and our empty baskets are eager to be filled. She thinks I don’t know about the Undine, but she is wrong.
Chanterelles are my favourite mushrooms. We hunt them like treasure, bright golden ornaments scattered across the green moss that lines the forest floor like the inside of a jewel box. On the window ledge where we dry them during the heat of the season’s long days, they blend into the ends of the sunbeams shafting down from the heavens and soak up their generous warmth. Our cottage is lined with jars and jars of pickled sunlight and tins of dehydrated rays, as brittle as bliss and as fragrant as velvet apricots. We eat them in winter when we quarrel because we miss the August sun, and their aureate flavour suffuses the space between us with the promise of returning joy.
Lorna slips out of our bed in the dead of night. I am used to this by now, but still, I wake, as I always wake when her heart goes wandering and her body follows. I watch her dress from beneath stealthy lids. I watch from behind the bedroom door while she fills her pockets with the prettiest rocks from our collection: obsidian, garnet, amethyst, beryl. When she leaves the cottage I follow, as I always do, to see where she goes. I have learned to walk so quietly over grasses and twigs and dry leaves that she never seems to know I am there—or else she does not care that I know how lightly she betrays me.
At the dark heart of the forest lies the crumbling well amidst the ancient ruins. I watch from behind a tree as she swings her long legs over its lip and sinks into its caliginous depths and does not resurface. I wait and wait, watching for her to come up adorned with new gills, the marks of the Undine’s sharp nails, the glow of passion triumphant, but I wait in vain.
“Come back,” I say, again, again, “Lorna, Lorna, come back.”
The stars evaporate into morning. My skirts soak heavy with frigid dew, and I go home alone.
The cottage is too quiet without my Lorna. She always used to sing and talk and laugh when things were right, when she had burned through whoever had recently taken her fancy and cast them aside and come back to where she would always be welcomed no matter what. She kept herself busy then, pickling, baking, cleaning, and combing my flat black hair before she let me lead her to bed. I keep myself busy, too, but I cannot sing, and I have no one to talk to, and nothing is funny now that I am the one who has been cast aside, and I live in silence.
The meadow is filling up with fluff from the bursting milkweed pods that make me long to be so tiny I can curl my body inside them and hide and sleep. I cannot shrink myself small enough—I have tried and tried over the years—and so I fill my basket instead, and spin the slippery fibres into glistening yarn. I want to knit a thing that looks like the Undine’s sinuous tail. I know a stitch that looks like scales, and I want to pretend I know how to be alluring.
I lie in bed while I knit because there is no reason to get up. There is no one to laugh and judge me for being lazy. A raven croaks outside the bedroom window. I have always ignored the ravens before—I learned when I was young that ravens have nothing to say which I do not already know—but now I rise and open the shutters to ask:
“Have you seen my love?”
The raven shakes its feathery head and says:
“You have no love, there is no love inside your house. You have always been a loveless thing.”
I close the shutters against its lies and go to the kitchen to open a jar and eat a pickled mushroom. Before Lorna went, we filled so many jars with sunlight and gills, much good they did her. I sit at the table and knit another shining row. I tell myself that my house holds love because I love myself. I tell myself that my love is enough to keep me. I do not want more.
The Undine was my dream first before Lorna stole her. My dreams were different in their substance—Lorna was everything I wanted in a woman, and I would not stray—but that did not mean I had none of my own desires.
Maybe if Lorna had asked me, I would have told her what I knew about Undines. My knowledge of things uncommon and uncanny was, after all, one of the reasons Lorna had first
become determined to add me to her collection. An Undine has no soul, and she cannot love. An Undine cannot be seduced even by such beauty as Lorna possessed, for an Undine knows how to take what she wants without being taken in turn. They say Undines can grant wishes if they wish to, if they are given a worthy offering and they are amused. Only a fool would think herself able to win the heart of such a hungry thing. I would not have called my Lorna a fool before, but she acted foolishly. Perhaps I did too, in letting my hurt leave her chasing after foolish dreams without a word in warning.
We used to eat mushrooms in place of meat, for Lorna did not like to harm the innocent.
“I cannot bear to shed the blood of the helpless,” she used to cry. “This awful world is full enough of hurt. We need not cause more.”
At night she would sink her teeth into my shoulder until the pillow was specked with blood. She did not like to feel pain, so to me, the tastes of copper, iron, and salt were forbidden.
The gardens around the cottage have not been watered since Lorna left me for the Undine. All the flowers have died, and their brown stalks rattle like bones. A swarm of hummingbirds comes to the door and asks me to give them cool water fortified with sugar.
“We will starve if you do not help us,” they hum in chorus like a hive of bees. “The flesh is melting from our bones with every word.”
Hummingbirds are even more beautiful than the milky scales dripping off my needles, but they bring no word of Lorna in return for what they ask. My love would have slaked their thirst and sung to them until their strength returned. I give them no sugar and shut the door against their plaintive buzz. When next I go out, they have fallen to the stones of the path. I do not wish to waste them, so I braise them in dandelion wine with dried chanterelles. Their tiny bodies give my own body little nourishment, but the elegance of the dish soothes my simmering fury. Lorna, my gentle Lorna, would have buried them in sweet little graves in the part of the meadow we used to use as our cemetery. But Lorna, my faithless Lorna, is not here.
Whenever I tire of knitting, I practise holding my breath for longer, longer, longer. I eat whole jars of mushrooms for every meal, caring not for the winter that will come and find my pantry hollowed out. I tuck hummingbird feathers into my hair to see if they make me more lovely, but when I look into the mirror I cannot see myself, only my lack of gills.
The problem may be that chanterelles do not have true gills. I can eat them and eat them, but any gills I grow will be as false as the misleading ridges veining the undersides of their caps. False gills fork like the tongue of a lying snake, like the tongue of the Undine waiting in her well. Any gills I grow will be as false as the words I said every time I told Lorna I forgave her, again, and I was only happy that she had come back to me at last.
The birds stop visiting before my tail is ready. I think they are frightened by the thorn-beaked skulls I strung upon a garland around my neck. They are right to be frightened, for I am no longer forbidden the taste of blood. I am unbidden. I am a butcheress. I am an eater of birds.
“You are too-whoo-whoo hungry,” the last birds who came, the slow white guileless doves, had gurgled before I caught the rest of their susceptible flock. “We want only peace. Please let us leave. Please let us—”
My tail is almost complete. Its milkweed pearlescence sets off the iridescence of the hummingbird feathers woven through its lacy scales. When I try it on I almost feel the water caressing my body, tracing my lines and curves like a map to treasure, like seaweed coveting the most precious piece in a hoard of sunken jewels. I walk to the river and practise swimming with my short legs held together, undulating like a serpent, diving deep. My breath-holding practise helps me stay under, but my gills remain as false as my lost love’s heart.
“Did you think,” my Lorna laughed, long ago, the first time I found she had strayed, “That you would be enough for me? Silly bird, dull thing, how on earth could someone like you be enough? Be grateful that I took pity and came back.”
And gratitude seemed so close at hand when we were together inside our warm, safe cottage, surrounded by our quagmire of beautiful things. She dressed me like a doll, in the frocks and frills and lace she found pleasing, packing picnics in wicker baskets and making tea in bone china cups decorated with flowers. We shared a beautiful cage of a play-acted life, for which I truly might have been grateful if only I had not been cursed with eyes clear enough to see it for what it was. I might have left, had I not meant to reclaim my dreams. She held them so tightly I almost felt it was me to which she clung. I might have been happy if I had not understood. I did not want to mind when she had to wander. I wanted to believe that I would have had to wander too if I was the only thing I had waiting for me at home.
Even though my tail is unfinished, the hummingbird skulls and the bones of the foolish doves tell me it is time. They are lying, of course, because they want revenge. I know their desire, but I will not be their victim.
“I will eat you again,” I promise. I grind them up in the mortar and add them to smoothies to make my own bones stronger. I do not want the Undine’s powerful tail to crush me before I have a chance to ask her how she gets what she wants.
My smoothies are delicious because the meadow is ripe with late-summer berries, the bushes by our cemetery covered in fistfuls of bloody fruit. I stain my fingers and lips as I fill my stomach and heart and every basket we own. I eat berries with mushrooms and berries with bone meal and cream. In the mirror, I see the red on my face and I wonder if the Undine likes to eat berries. I think her tastes run more to ladies than fruit. I am not much of a lady so maybe she will not find me as appetizing as Lorna. Maybe she will listen before she strikes.
I gobble the last of the dried mushrooms down before I leave the cottage. The jars are all empty now, and there is nothing left for winter. Lorna would have chastised me for my lack of care for the future, but Lorna is gone, and I no longer have to take care. I put on my prettiest dress, frilled with rippling chiffon that makes me think of the gills I have yet to grow. I coil the knitted tail into my basket. It shimmers and shivers in the sunlight, looking as though it is coming to a life of its own, as though my work and wishing have made it real. As I walk to the well, the woods whisper in my wake, too softly for me to understand.
The Undine is so beautiful it is no wonder Lorna chose her over me. I try to be as pretty as a taken-for-granted thing can be, but I am not a mythic being made of fantasy itself. She looks up at me, her eyes just above the water’s tarnished surface, long hair pooling around her in a blue-green algal sheen. A slow, sublime smile stretches her soft lips over her pointed teeth.
“Hello,” she says, in a voice made of nightmare music, “Have you come to claim your love?”
I shake my head and uncoil my tail from the basket. I slip it over my legs and shed the frilly dress that Lorna liked because she said it made me look like a present, wrapped and given, hers to use.
The Undine’s smile makes no space when I slide into the well. My body slips off the stones and falls against hers. I feel the cold armour of her scales. I dare not meet her eyes. Far below the surface, something gleams in the ray of sunlight stabbing down through the canopy of trees and lancing into the dark, deep water. Something white like gnawed bone, something petal-gold like the hair of a faithless love. The Undine strokes my cheek with a sharp, glinting nail and forces my gaze against hers so she can see all the long way down into my soul.
“I want to be real,” I say, though she didn’t ask. “I want to be like you, an unreal thing more true than real things know how to be. I want to be myself and nothing else. I want to breathe underwater and gnaw on the bones of people who think that they can own me.”
The Undine strokes down my neck and arms, along my knitted scales. I know she can see that nothing about me is real, from the dye in my mousy hair to my artificial tail, but she sees more than that. The Undine can see that everything about me is real, from my wanting wanting wanting to the crumpled, crushed love that my heart still holds for a woman who left me, over and over, and gave her life in the end to a stolen fantasy she did not understand. The Undine can see things clearly because she does not muddy her vision with petty feeling.
While I wait for the Undine to weary of games and pull me under the water, I think of how little I regret the things I have done. My head is full to bursting with sunlight and gleaming scales and the flavours of life and death. I have learned there is equal beauty in creation and destruction. I have tasted both and found them good, and that is enough for me. I am enough.
“I like you,” the Undine says at last. “You feel no remorse, and you know the taste of bone. You may live if you will live a while with me. I think you will make an entertaining pet.”
I barely feel the Undine’s fingers raking the sides of my neck and opening a delicate bloom of gills as true as anything inside me. When she draws me under the surface I feel the water rushing in, and I open my mouth to bubble a laugh as I take what feels like my very first breath, my wet skin itching as the knitted scales bond into armour.
“Live for me,” she says. “Live, and let me feed on your wonder. I am too old to wonder on my own. I want to feel new.”
“I will live,” I say, “But I will not live for you. I will not live for anyone else again.”
My nails, made strong with the bones of birds, have grown as long and sharp as the finest claws. I stroke them down her incurious face and draw them across her unprotected throat. A red rush of heat blooms through the water and into my open gills. My hungry mouth waters as the Undine’s eyes grow dim. I swallow the heat, and I am free, and it is everything I dreamed.