I wake in June, free from my former self. Rhythmic beating of the tides have washed away most of the troublesome details from before: my name, how I came to be, relations. Scrubbed and purged by my mother the sea, I stretch upon a bed of shifting sands. Glowing orbs twinkle through the otherwise impenetrable darkness, a blanket of nautical stars through the midnight zone. Quiet lays thick in the deep, and if not for the hunger driving me, I think I’d settle, plunge what’s left of my toes into sugar sand, and let the water’s gentle sway rock me back into slumber.
Alas, my craving wins out. I push off from the bottom, a flurry of disturbed seabed rising around me like a waterspout. I don’t see it, but feel the grit tickle my edges, burrow into my rotted flesh. Sunlight begins to penetrate the black and I see the full truth of myself. As I kick, chunks of me cling to bone. Strips of gray flesh wave like tattered flags. Some snap off, roots too gnarled away by saltwater to hold their grip. But it’s no matter, the bits of me that spiral back down to the deep will feed my lessers: sharks and squid that scan the bottom, searching for tasty morsels. I am pleased to be of service to them.
My billowing tendrils of hair collect kelp in the ascent like so much jewelry. The mirror surface of the Adriatic sea, Adriana, my mother, welcomes me with my own warped reflection. I think, before I crack the surface, of how beautiful I have become. How powerful. The moment I breach, I’m gifted with a name.
A tad troublesome in my mouth, so I shorten it.
This is the name I will give them.
There’s no pain as my eyes adjust to the sun. Adriana collected my pain in her generous waves, ushered it to distant shores. Only the hunger remains. Atop white caps I travel toward the smattering of green in the East. What was a splash of color becomes raised tree tops, becomes the baked clay roofs of a town surrounded by forest, becomes a weather worn dock, a port speckled with fishing vessels. The men don’t see me as I reach the shallows, too distracted by stringing banners and lugging barrels of spirits.
My skeletal feet find purchase on the rocky shoreline, and my head and neck clear the water. As droplets slip from emerging shoulders, their luster is restored. Smooth skin stretches over my chest and arms, and my young, hollow body glistens in the daylight. I trudge up to shore, waves sloshing about my knees, stirring sea foam in my wake, and my bodice clutches at my breasts, once again full beneath my burgundy skirts, silken and untattered as the day they were tailored. My hair is a tangled mess of curls. The tips lick my elbows as Adriana kisses me goodbye.
I will see you again soon, I whisper, though only in my mind.
A fisherman has taken notice of me. My red skirts and youth are stark against the gray stone and lapping waves. He hovers above a crab trap, rope in hand, observing me like a specter. I let him watch as my bare feet meet the cobblestone road. Painted signs adorn vendor tables on either side of the main street. La Serenissima is painted blue and pink and yellow by ribbons extended from balconies and affixed to clothing lines. I sense my sisters amongst the bustling crowd, hungry as I am and hidden from view. Our name is whispered by a thousand tongues.
It is their mentioning that wakes us, ignites our hunger, draws us from the sea. Each June we answer their call, and each year they call again, like fireflies to the flames of their own misfortune.
We needn’t consult one another. We each will do what is bidden, what we are driven to do, as soon as the sun dips below the mountainous horizon, and the men have swallowed much wine and ale. I wander and wander until it begins, listening to strange beings talk of strange things, of donkeys and childbirth and weddings. A woman crunches a green apple in her mangled teeth as a gray bearded man leans too close to listen, gets bits of fruit spit onto his mustache while she chews. Their horrid flirtation sparks my lust, a sweet reminder of my purpose. The festival, Rusalnaya, is held in our honor, and we honor them by accepting their sacrifice.
Finally, it is time. The street is bathed in an orange glow as the sun nods its fiery head.
His chin is foamy with warm ale. His tan pants grip his calves. He is yours. Find him.
The wind speaks to me, and my craving becomes so deep and wide I think it might tear me open. I scan the crowd and my eyes lock upon a salt and pepper man with a silver mug to his lips. He pulls me to him. I dodge children spinning tops, push aside a stray dog begging for scraps, duck beneath a fallen streamer. My pulse, or something like one, thrums at my temple. I am all fire and craving. He spots me, his glare tight to my bosom. For this I cannot blame him. It is his nature, and this is mine. My lashes flutter and I pass him, though my head turns over my shoulder so he is bidden to follow. Down an alley I go, away from the noise and chatter of the busy town. Rapturous sounds of folly dampen in thickening fog as I wind through back alleys that stink of fish bellies and rotted lettuce. His steps are close behind me.
My loins ache with desire, my belly a vacuous hole. Through the damp air, I see my mother, Adriana, lapping the shore with her greedy tongue. I turn to my man once again, show him my teeth, my curled lip invitation. His pace quickens, and finally the breaking of gentle waves on the rocky shore overtakes the jolly of the now distant festival.
Adriana speaks, Bring him to me.
I will! I will!
The tide swirls about my bare feet and finally I stop walking and turn to face him. I say nothing as his boots splash into the tide pool. When his calloused hands catch on my silks, I don’t move away. The pressure about my hips only deepens my lust as I take a single step toward the sea. He thinks naught of it, stepping forward to meet me, to clutch at the strings of my corset, untangle them behind my back. I hear my labored breaths, toss my head backward and gaze into the glorious night. He strips me of my dress, tossing it to the shallows, leaving only my pale bodice to reflect the moonlight. We are at the precipice now.
I step backward and step again. He nearly trips over himself to regain his hold on me, and my passion stirs between my thighs, shoots like lightning through my emptied chest and into my fingertips. Waist deep now, I am feral with lust. Desirous lightning dances about my palms, invisible but deadly as my mother sea. When he reaches betwixt my legs, I feel his fingernail scrape bone, and a flash of recognition alights his irises.
“Speak my name,” I whisper.
He is frozen as a rat in a glue trap.
“I—I don’t…” He trembles.
“Ella is my name.”
I yank his arms round my body, the contact ecstasy on my skin above water. Only beneath the depths does my true form show: my mottled flesh hanging in chunks, bits flaking off and nibbled by passing silver fishes.
The crescendo builds, threatening as rolling thunder.
“Speak my name,” I command.
“Ella.” His grown throat emits the voice of a frightened child. He’s weak within my grasp, impotent as a flopping fish.
“My true name.”
His quivering jaw hangs open, and the word ekes out. “Rusalka.”
I plunge his head beneath the surf, stand square over him with legs parted. The bubbles from his underwater pleas caress my most sensitive places. The crescendo builds. I thrust my hands beneath the water, wriggle my fingers about his underarms, his ribcage. Demented laughter spills from his drowning mug. His wide eyes beg for mercy beneath the waterline, but I tickle and tickle, pulling every bubble of air from his lungs. Delicious pressure from the rising air is a generous lover. My fingers work him and work him, and the crescendo builds. I toss my head back, unable to contain my moans. They escape my full lips like prayers to the oldest gods. At the brink now, I cast my eyes to the hovering moon, and at last his spirit leaves him in a flurry of tiny bubbles, pushing me over the edge of craving into rapturous delight. I shriek. Filled. Sated. Pleasure overtakes me like a torrential storm.
I release my grip on him and let my hands glide around my goosed chest, my nipples pressing against my bodice, and wave after wave of exquisite pleasure rocks my gifted body. I don’t know how long I delight in the aftershocks, but when I regain myself, his corpse floats face down in the shallows, already beginning to bloat.
I feel my sisters drawing their targets from the crowd, pulling them toward the beach. I have more decency than to intrude, so I slip beneath the surface, smooth and silent as an eel. Adriana calls me deeper. Happy to oblige, I swim, no need of breath, the black sea stripping away my temporary flesh. I find a cozy spot in the dark deep, beside a coral formation in the shape of a cave. The sand here is fine and smooth, and the bones of my fingers burrow easily beneath it. I turn and dig my way in like a ray, and the sea floor happily accepts me as one of its own. Faintly, I see the smiling moon through the bucking, mirror surface. She lulls me into a dreamless sleep, heavy enough to last a year.
Rae Knowles is a queer woman with multiple works forthcoming from Brigids Gate Press. Her debut novel, The Stradivarius, is coming May ’23, her sapphic horror novella, Merciless Waters, is due out winter ’23, and her collaboration with April Yates, Transatlantic, in early ’24. Twelve of her short stories have been published or are forthcoming this year from publications like Dark Matter Ink and Nosetouch Press. Recent updates on her work can be found at RaeKnowles.com and you can follow her on twitter @_Rae_Knowles