These Secret Waters
The crone was much sweeter in nature than she let on—though anyone who accused her of this would have been dismissed with a snort and a string of expletives that would make even the saltiest sailor’s hair stand on end. She dressed herself in rags not because she couldn’t afford better but because the thought of wearing a corset or girdle made her break out in a cold sweat. She had knobby joints that reminded one of the knots that grow in lumpy clusters on old tree trunks. By some miracle, she still had all of her original teeth, but they were stained black from the quid she chewed night and day; some said she chewed the mishmash of spices and leaves even in her sleep, her gums smacking away while the rest of her body was still. They said her jaw couldn’t quite remember how to stop chewing. The wads of spit she had to occasionally lob at the poor unsuspecting dirt were red; her saliva was stained by the quid, too, making it look like her gums were always bleeding.
For all that, she was a sweet old thing. She liked to tell stories—not her own, though she had many—to children and adults alike. She thought stories were the best tool to bring together otherwise hostile people and that the root of most evil was boredom: A man weary after a long day of hard work sees another man’s home and thinks, “Ah, he must be weary, as I am,” and both men sleep soundly. A bored man sees another man’s home and spends his empty time wondering if it is better than his own, and, when he inevitably decides that it is, plots how he might steal it.
On a day when the sky overflowed with brawling winter storm clouds, farmers and townsfolk alike gathered in the central hall of Castle Yaronne, the crone’s home. The crone’s son had built the manse for her, to honor and revere her. He’d died while serving in the army—his shoes had rotted, and the gangrene started in his feet and kept climbing up. A common enough story. When she saw the fine mansion her son had built, she embraced him and praised his generosity, but inside, her heart twisted until it was a clenched fist. It would do her no good to have his honor and reverence and a hundred cold, empty rooms.
But on that day, none of her rooms were empty. Winter hurled its insults at the village, and ugly clouds clotted over the sun, but the crone was seated comfortably in a rocking chair nearly as old and gnarled as she was. She always invited the whole town to shelter in her castle when the weather turned foul (except Thom the Thatcher, since everyone knew he was a raper, and Meryn the Tailor, who’d once broken her boy’s nose). People gratefully accepted, and stormy days took on a sort of holiday feel since no one could work their fields or draw customers into their shops. People brought their best meats and grains to prepare in the castle’s grand kitchens and served the food communally. Musicians would grab their lutes and pipes as they fled the coming storm, and there would be dancing, singing, and feasting in the castle hall while the townsfolk waited for the gale to spin itself out. The only thing the crone did not abide was drinking; she had neither the patience nor the inclination to listen to the caterwauling of drunken louts, and so the wine stayed locked away in people’s homes.
The storm that plagued this particular day had come up shockingly fast; some tittered among themselves about magic and druids. The crone heard these murmurings and the edge of panic that stained them, and she rapped her cane thrice on the edge of the stone fireplace.
“C’mon then, c’mon,” she railed at them, and the room fell quiet as all struggled to hear. “Come round, all y’, for one of Ole Yedezda’s tales, won’t ya?” Yedezda wasn’t the crone’s name, but it suited her, for the moment. Since she didn’t enjoy trying on dresses or hairstyles, she instead experimented with names. This one had lasted three weeks—longer than any other, as far as anyone in the town could recall.
Everyone who wasn’t busy in the castle’s kitchens quickly gathered up their blankets and cushions. Not everyone would be able to hear her over the crackling of the fire, which was big enough to warm a hall packed with a couple hundred people, so there was a little rush toward her chair. The floor had been spread with thick furs, and people dropped their blankets and flopped down gracelessly as they picked out their spots. The crone firmly rapped the shins of any adult who came too close to her chair, though; the best spots, at her feet, were for the children.
Once everyone had settled down again, the crone cleared her throat. She normally had a thick brogue that she exploited shamelessly when she didn’t want to talk to somebody; she would garble her words until they were as intelligible as a sack of marbles spilling onto a stone floor. The poor offending conversationalist would be driven away, confused but not unhappy, and the crone would smile her black-toothed smile at their retreat. But the brogue melted away when the crone spun her tales. She shifted in and out of her character’s voices without breaking the pace of her storytelling; she could just as easily affect a maiden’s high lilt as a troll’s gravelly snort, making the youngest children gasp and the oldest ancients smile.
Though the sky outside darkened with each passing hour, inside, spirits were light and floating. Children tumbled all over one another in haphazard heaps; lovers curled in each other’s embraces; and mothers and fathers held infants in their laps as the crone began her yarn:
“You all know how the Count of the Ardennes came to know the water nymph, Melusine? Of course you do; smart little lads and lasses you all are. For all you ancients thar in the back—yes, I see you, Lonny, you old windbag—who’ve no doubt forgotten,” she wiggled her eyebrows conspiratorially at the children, so they all understood that she was really one of them, though she happened to be in a very old body, “the lord came upon the lady in the lush forests that surrounded his home. He’d spent all the morning riding through those enchanted woods, the likes of which neither you nor I have ever seen. He knelt beside a clear spring, whose trickling song was like a bell ringing, and drank deeply of those sacred waters. And when he lifted his eyes from the water cupped in his hands, there she was.” The crone’s eyes grew distant, her voice wistful. “Such a creature, like the forests and springs of her birth, has never been beheld by the eyes of any mortal living today, little loves. No, such a beauty is not for us, for we’ve not lived long enough to understand it.
“The man was in awe of her. He declared that she would marry him, or he would waste away for love of her. But she refused him.
”He returned to his home, utterly dejected. For the full cycle of the moon, he traveled back to the spring each night, and each night she refused him. His body began to waste away, his mind to tatter, as he realized he would never have his heart’s desire.
“Finally, when the moon had reached its fullness again, the woman appeared before him. Seeing the state of his mind and body, she said she would marry him—but only if he made her a promise.” The crone’s eyes sparkled, and she gripped her cane in her twisted fingers. “There is often a fatal condition attached to the pairing of fairy folk and mortal, my little loves. Never forget it, should ye step into a mushroom circle or be taken beneath the hills and into their gilded halls. There is always a price.”
Her voice trailed off. All familiar with the crone’s stories were used to this and waited politely for her to continue.
“The promise was this: Twice each day, she must be given her privacy in their bedchamber and not be disturbed, and at dark of the moon, she must be left entirely alone.
“Now, t’was an odd promise, to be certain, but the man was so in love that he would have promised nearly anything. To give a woman her privacy seemed a very small thing, compared to what he had been ready to offer.” There was a little sigh around the room from all the wives assembled. The crone grinned.
“The two were wed, and on the eve of their vows, Melusine used her mystic arts to build for the count a castle of utter beauty, a masterpiece of coral and moonstone that sang with the hymn of the sea and shone with the moon’s luminance. He praised her art and beauty, and she loved him wholly.
“The two were rarely apart. When the count took his fleet into battle, it was always with her at the helm, clad in sea-green armor chased with moonlight. Her face was the inspiration for every carved figurehead that adorned the count’s ships. She bore him three fine daughters, and they founded a great and powerful house to which others would gladly kneel.
“But, little loves, their joy was not to last. Few things are eternal, and love is the most fickle promise of them all. Men and women alike make many promises in the heat of their courtships, my little ones, which they swear to God and to themselves that they will keep. It is no fault of theirs that hearts are tricky things, and the promises of the young in love wilt under the desires of the old in doubt.” The elders nodded at this, and those who had been happily married for decades clasped one another’s hands. They had long since learned this truth, in not so many words, and had accepted it.
“The count of the Ardennes could not resist temptation. After decades of bliss, he decided he must spy on his wife when she withdrew from him, at dark of the moon.” The older children groaned at the count’s stupidity, and a few mothers chuckled under their breaths.
”The count could barely see her form, for his beautiful castle was as dark as a witch’s heart when the moon turned her face away from it. And so he lit a torch and laid his eyes on his wife, Melusine, in her true form, for the first time.
”This is how he discovered that on those nights when she could not feel the sweet caress of the moon’s light, and at both high tides each day, it was then that she let go of the magic that kept her in the form of a woman, and she became one of the sea folk once again.
“Melusine wailed when the harsh torchlight burned her watery mermaid’s eyes. Blinded, she keened her fury and screeched her pain. The count fell to his knees, his ears bleeding.
“Melusine rose from her bathwater, righteous in her fury, all-powerful in her rage. The count had never seen her look so beautiful, nor so terrifying. She swore a curse on him and all of his house:
Your soul is a
Where greed grows foul
Where all weep in
A discordant keen.
Will taste no joy
Will father none
Who become old.
It was your crime.
Will destroy us
Will drive us mad
With hate, with grief.
Wait for her birth
Flesh of my flesh
Until she comes
There is no grief
You will not bear.
There was quiet, except for the snaps and pops of the fire, as the chill of the mermaid’s curse settled over the crowd, raising gooseflesh along their arms and causing more than one to shiver and glance out at the jet black sky.
At length, the crone sighed. “A woman betrayed is a powerful thing, my loves. A fey woman, all the more so. Remember well the promises you keep, and fulfill them to your best ability, lest your sons and daughters pay the price of your folly.
“As for Melusine, she turned the entire bath chamber to stone, encasing her and her foolish husband in a block of solid coral, and dragged it down the side of the cliffs and into the ravenous waters of the River Alzette. Their daughters found naught but rubble and an empty hole in their home and in their hearts. They rebuilt their castle and went on with their lives, as all grieving daughters do.
“And as for the curse: Over the years, the words of it came to each of Melusine’s daughters again and again in their dreams, until each one could recite it from memory. And it was true: No son of the count’s line has ever lived past the balmy early days of adulthood, and the women are cursed by their grief and loneliness.
”It is said that all descendants of the count and Melusine hear the curse in their dreams. When they hear the words accompanied by the wailing of Melusine as she was blinded by the torchlight, a descendant of the count knows that death is very near.
“But there is more to the curse than vengeance, my little loves. For all her rage, Melusine had loved the human, and so she left his kin with another promise: that of hope. One day, a daughter will be born in the lineage of the count, one who bears the heart of the mysterious Melusine. It is she, many believe, who will end the curse. It is her guidance that will allow the count and all of his kin to, at last, earn Melusine’s forgiveness.
“But that is a tapestry not yet woven, a tale not even begun.”
Mary Kenney is a writer, creator, and marketer living in Chicago. Her first love is high fantasy, but she loves experimenting with science fiction and urban fantasy (often with weird results). Her nonfiction work has appeared in The New York Times, Global Post, Salon, and more. When not writing or reading, she’s usually gaming, backpacking, or hiking.