Drowning Joys

“Come now, give us a smile. It can’t be that bad?”

It’s a line nearly as old as I am. These days a body has to be careful where and on whom he uses it. Benign and charming turns into creepy and predatory if you aren’t careful. No one wants a handsome man like this one thinking the latter. Ruins the surprise.

He does look better with that tiny, fluttering uptick at the corner of his mouth, though it doesn’t last. His eyes still search the watered down scotch for whatever it is folk look for these days. I lose track. Or I don’t bother learning, which is surely what Ma would have blamed it on.

“So it can be that bad, then?” I ask. The upcurve on his lips lasts a second longer this go around. He turns his attention from the drink to me. His thick, ginger brows wrinkle, but it frames the eyes well. Hazel, these. I like hazel eyes. A nice, malleable kind, those are. Some days brown, some days green, as the mood and the day strikes one.

“It’s complicated,” he says, giving a shrug of his narrow shoulders. Slight enough I might not have noticed, save the fact this one follows the fashion of wearing his shirts smaller than he ought, so as to show off what’s underneath.

“And when isn’t it, darling?” I ask, leaning on the bar.

“You’re not from around here,” he says, that furrow in his brow complementing the way his lips press thin. The shine on his slicked-back hair catches the blue in the lights.

“Oh, and I’ve been working so hard on my ’merican accent,” I quip, giving my own little frown. His furrow shallows out, but just a smidge.

"So, where are you from?”

“You may be a monster, but you’re not alone in it,” Ma told me. She told me this quite a bit. Probably more than I remember. I only listened to her half the time. "We aren’t even the best at what we do.”

Now this, a young kelpie listens to, even when the river’s full of bright and flashing schools of shad calling him to gallivant. No one likes hearing his clan isn’t the best, and surely I was no exception. No, when a body issues that kind of challenge, whether you’re a horse or a man or a horse who turns into a man, you can’t let that lie.

“I’m stronger than any other horse,” I shot back. "My coat’s sleek and black and handsome, no matter if I’ve four legs or two. One long look and there’s not a lass alive doesn’t want to lay her hands on me.”

Ma shook her mane in the moonlight. The drops of water threw a halo of sparkling color. She always did put on a show. "Rusalka are comely drowning spirits even if they only come in lady shapes. Lure a lad out to water with their hair waving a red current and skin smooth as a calm lake, then slide from his grip and leave him to drown. A siren doesn’t even need a body to see her, now does she? Sings out bright and chipper, and the lads come out to find her.

“Better still: what’s a bunyip need with pretty at all? All muscle and jaw and big, curved teeth to snatch his prey and drag it under water? Gets the lads and the lasses, doesn’t he?”

I’d not yet talked to mother about how I had a mind for both lads and lasses, myself. The Scots were ages away from falling under British rule, and Ma was older than any Scotsman living. We weren’t what a body might call progressive. Not that the British did much to help that.

“No, we’re a fine kind of monster.” Ma slipped back below the surface of the river. I lolled under with her, bubbles dancing upward from the end of my nose. "But we’ve plenty enough of our own flaws.”

“I hear good things about Scotsmen,” he says when I tell him about home. About the parts of home he’d expect me to tell. You don’t charm a lad out of the bar with stories of mystic shapeshifters, after all. You used to could, but these days, you claim to be a water breathing horse and you’re as like to wind up strapped to a bed with a stomach full of anti-psychotics.

He’s biting his lower lip. His teeth catch the top few whiskers of that tightly-trimmed beard of his. His hazel is brown when his eyes travel below my belt. The admiration charges through my blood. My shoulders quiver, which is much easier to hide now I’m wearing a coat made from another creature’s hide than when the coat was my own.

“It’s all of it true,” I whisper, leaning close. Not close enough to touch. Not here. But close enough that we catch each other’s musk. His would be cologne. Hints of chamomile and flax, which I can’t say I expected. "I’m Callum, by the by?”

“Oh,” he sits up straight again, and I try not to give away how much I like the hint of blush that hits his sharp cheeks. "Dmitri.”

“Slavic ginger instead of Celt?” Another surprise, though it explains why he’s still a fan of the wet look. Not that I can complain. He does wear it well. Besides, I’m the last soul to complain about wet.

“Family name,” he says.

“Nothing wrong with that. Especially when the family gave you such good genes.” Oh, but I am pulling out the worst lines tonight. Because that blush across his pale skin says they’re working, though, who’s to argue? Much as I always railed against tradition, sometimes the old ways work.

My first time, I didn’t have to speak at all. She was a buxom lass with thick, long hair. Her eyes sparkled in the afternoon sun, though her smile was brighter than the sunshine, anyway. She found me snacking on thistle in a clearing. My dark coat was sleek and clean beneath the shine of both sun and smile. Such a strong, well-groomed horse had no reason wandering wild, but neither did that lass have call to be traipsing about the forest on her own.

I loved her, which sounds like a lie but I promise is not. She took in the sight of my horseflesh with her adoring eyes. Held her breath in awe and dared to sneak closer. I played with her. Twitched an ear, stomped a hoof. Watched her giggle and jump and hold herself still. All that ardor, all for me. It charged through my blood and my muscle and my bone and made me strong.

How could a body take in such exquisite, life-sustaining joy from a soul and not love it? I’m a monster, not a rock.

It’s a clean night, after the rain, and the streets are filled with tiny puddles. The air’s washed free of smog. I can enjoy having choices. Enjoy Dmitri, for a little while. So alive, those eyes. And his smile, now that he’s let it go, now that he feels safe and charmed and ready, that warms me up and down.

“Across the bridge, right?” he asks. I nod.

“Bit of a hike, but a body likes to stay in shape,” I answer. "Not that I fault a lad a belly, mind. We’re all of us beautiful. I just don’t have the money to buy the new wardrobe.”

He giggles. It’s hardly trying with this one. Hasn’t been this easy since that first silly lass.

I turned and pretended not to see her hiding so very poorly. Her hair was the color of grain, but that was hardly good camouflage. Even if it were, I’d heard her rustling my way a good five minutes before she found me. I smelled the tang of her a minute after. This was when humans smelled like themselves, when dirt and oil and sweat weren’t mixed with flowery water or aluminum. I appreciate a good cologne, but there’s something more thrilling about the truest stink of a body.

My feigned nerves had her hunkered down, waiting for me to relax. It meant she looked on longer. It meant I could soak in more. Could feel the thrill in her spine as we both kept still in anticipation. The sun stroked warm along my black-coated back. The wind gathered the scent of heather with the lass’s wholly human aroma and swirled them in my snout. I shook my head, mane whipping about as the girl stifled a gasp. One of the benefits of horse shape is that I could smile at my own pranks and humans never recognized it.

She should have done, mind you. Should have known better than to trust the world to be the way it always had been. Things change. People change. Sometimes into horses. It’s not just the devil in the details. There are plenty more monsters than that. She decided not to notice, though. Decided it was better to take a risk for what thrilled her than to hide away safe from it.

It’s not so simple these days. A body would wind up dodging animal control if he wandered about as a naked stallion in the streets. Then there was that harrowing period when folk were inclined to treat me as brutishly in human shape when they saw my dark skin.

Nowadays, though, a lad of any stripe can walk down the street. He can even make eyes at another lad while he does, the way Dmitri and I do. Maybe a few folks might turn, but their looks have as many smiles as they have sneers. More of the former, even.

There’s only so long that I could resist, of course, before I had to let that lass get closer. The closer they are, the more I soak in. Back then, I had almost no willpower at all. It wasn’t much time before I tilted my head back down to the thistles, which aren’t bad as flowers go, but do nothing save keep my smart mouth busy.

Me playing at nibbles and distracted chews and she unfurled tall and waving as the long grass. The chuff and skritch of skirts on green and amber blades crept toward me. Her hair and my mane both fluttered in the breeze. The waft of porridge from her breakfast tickled my nose. Such a charge, it flinched my shoulders, knotted my haunches, but there’s no god living or dead could have stopped my wait. I’d not be robbed of so filling or precious a delicacy as those final few inches.

Her hand quavered a moment, just shy of my neck. She must have known by then, even if she didn’t want to believe. Fae stories were rampant at the time, as rampant as all of us were. Learning to recognize us was as vital as recognizing poison berries on the vine. True, not every damp-haired ginger lass is a rusalka, nor does every bright feather lead to a firebird with its power to twist fate. You needn’t assume you’ve found a kitsune because a winsome lass shies away from dogs. Still, when a wild stallion’s coat and mane are fine and strong and carry a whiff of the river far from shore, you’re courting death to touch his hide as well you are to eat dark berries when you can’t tell black nightshade from deadly. If you’re eager enough to survive, you learn the difference. If you’re not, then it’s hardly fair to ask the world to write clearer signs for you.

I could have spared her. If I’d run, though, I would have to give up on those last few, succulent breaths. I couldn’t resist wringing out the last drop. She couldn’t resist touching me.

“The river smells good from here, doesn’t it?” Dmitri asks. I’m sure he’s rattled on about a dozen other things as we strolled, but I listened to him about as much as I did Ma. We’re at the peak of the bridge, now. I’m full up fit to burst. I breathe in deep and try not to shudder.

“You smell better,” I whisper, leaning back against the railing. My arms and legs buzz with a famished need, but he has to come to me. Has to want it, because that final rush of wanting is the last thing I need to make what follows worth it.

“Oh?” He gives a sideways grin. He leans in, the hops on his breath twisting up with the chamomile and flax of his cologne. "How about now?”

I grip the railing like I fear I might blow off the bridge. I bite my lip and nod. This, that blink before the world fuzzes at the edges and I can never breathe them in deep enough. This is why.

She caught, that lovely peasant girl, and knew her mistake as sure as I did. She tried to pull her hand away, but it was too late. If my heart can’t resist staying to soak up every last bit of what a body has to offer, my flesh is an even hungrier beast. But where her eyes brought me nothing but ecstasy, her skin brought me nothing but pain.

That’s the secret we don’t like to tell, kelpies. We live on being watched; we die from being touched. Not right away, because wouldn’t that be a silly way to build a killer? We’d have all died off long ago, then. But that handprint burned sure as any iron brand. Hers weren’t the only eyes gone wide and wild. I bucked and let out a scream that wasn’t horse nor human, but full of fright and pain.

My legs pistoned me forward. Us forward. Because much as she screamed and pulled and dragged her own soon-bloody feet, that girl was stuck fast, burning me while we both sucked air.

This is the secret we’ve been less good at keeping. Kelpie flesh holds fast only so long as a victim’s living. And since we breathe water well as air, and since I never have craved a burning death, there’s not much choice, is there?

I galloped us into the river, deep and cold and gurgling in my ears. Her screams bubbled up, and she thrashed, because she wanted to give up her life as little as I, didn’t she? But I was larger and stronger, not least of all because of what she’d given me, and didn’t I tell you I loved her for that?

Once I felt the fire, I didn’t want to feel it again. Or do what needs doing to stop it. Both the fire and those wide, glassy eyes came to me while I slept.

But I dreamed just as much about what came before. Filling up on joy and wonder. My muscles quivering with the power of those adoring eyes. Of a game, where each moment we could steal was more engrossing than the last. Of teasing it out, building slow and growing closer. A step, a glance, a shuffle in the grass. My breath shuddering and the muscles in both of my shapes pulsing.

We’re made to avoid pain. That’s part of the problem. Same as a body pulls away from a sting or a burn, my mind learned to turn sideways from the memory of my pain. Turned right into the bright, glorious memory of everything that lead up to it, until the pain was as limp and impotent as a body sinking into the deep dark.

Then I found another lass. And I burned, and I ran, and she drowned, and I sulked away and promised never again. Until enough time went by, and the quiver in my shoulders and the warmth on my back swallowed up the pain again.

Eventually, I stopped pretending there wouldn’t be more. It helped when the world caught up to my heart, when I didn’t have to run from the lads whose eyes filled me up even more powerful than the lasses. Comes a time you know who you are, and it’s a foolish soul who pretends otherwise.

The wind catches Dmitri’s hair, which is odd given how it’s been slicked down. Then I realize it’s not the wind. It’s the hair. Wet, ginger hair growing up and out, undulating in a cloud around his head, weaving in a current that doesn’t yet hold us. Course bands of it lash out, slurp and knot around my wrists, my ankles, my waist. First a pinch, then a painful compression from each tress that binds me. It’s not the all-consuming burn of flesh, but I can’t pretend it’s enjoyable.

The press of the bridge railing slides down my back, then disappears as Dmitri lifts me up, pulls me closer. His hazel eyes are a bright emerald, his skin so pale I catch the delicate web of veins beneath it.

“Rusalka,” I whisper, and feel a proper fool. Ahead of my time, I thought, and so very happy when the world caught up with me, but still caught in my past. We have choices now, and not just the choices I want. If I’m not bound to only have women, why must rusalka be bound only to live as them? Shouldn’t I know better than most that a shape isn’t a self?

“I knew I liked you,” he whispers back, his now-long mane of hair pulling me close. The scent of slavic flowers and the sea is now clearly his own musk and not that of any cologne. "How many even know my kind these days?”

“As many as know mine, I suppose,” I say. The tension in my coiffured bonds loosens. I take the advantage. To hell with waiting. I grab both sides of Dmitri’s face with my hands. He does the same, and I’m burning again. He tries to pull away, but we’re stuck fast. We stumble backward, fused and bound together, and fall toward the water below, both of us screaming something more and less than human.

I never liked saying Ma was right, but as that lass and I thrashed, I knew it so. The siren could lure her prey to the water as she willed and they died happy. The rusalka watches her man struggle in the water grasses, but her flesh is slick so she can slip away whenever she wishes. Even a bunyip breaks a body’s neck when the struggle becomes too much. A kelpie feels it all, and there is no turning away.

My shoulder burned from her hand, and not a bit of it the warm, tender charge of her gaze. I felt each thrash, each pull. The shudder of her kicking feet that added tension to the burning and crimson to the water. I rolled my eyes back where I could catch her thick hair billowing in the flow. Clouds of bubbles pitched out with her gurgled pleas, played in that waving field of her barley-colored mane. Her eyes, which had been soft and tender and loving, pinched closed as she tried to pull away. Then gaped in wide terror when she looked me in the eye and knew I would kill her.

Eventually, the burning eased. The bubbles fled. Cold rushed at my neck as her hand slipped free. She floated down through the faint swirls of blood from her feet, her skirts heavy with water. Her gaze was glassy and empty, and I swam away to coddle my burn, because her hazel eyes had nothing more to give me.

The water smashes into my back. My face stretches forward to make a snout. My fingers melt and harden into hooves. Ears stretch. Haunches thicken. I throw back my head in the cloud of bubbles and let loose a neighing triumph as the river cools the flesh of my cheeks. This is one of the rusalki’s gifts, after all, that nothing might keep its grip on their skin once they enter the water.

I wheel about, fixing Dmitri with a horse’s eyes. Wide, bright, emerald eyes move up and down my body again, though now it’s a wholly different shape they take in. Dmitri’s hair twists its way through the water like a living thing, a mass of vermillion coils seeking prey. His gaze comes back up, locking mine with something mixed with a bit of frustration and a bit of fear and a bit of confusion and a bit of something I don’t quite know but think I might learn.

I smile, and that flash in his eyes tells me he recognizes it.

Dmitri swims to me, and though there’s a sting on contact, his hand slides away, slick as only a Slavic drowning spirit’s might be. We float closer, our faces almost touching. I melt back to the shape of a man. Dmitri’s hair retreats as quickly as my horseflesh. I grab Dmitri by the shirtfront, pull him to me. His kiss is tinged with pain, but here in the water that claims us both, it ends with the barest effort.

Then the two of us float downward, tangled together, into the cold and the dark.

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