Archives for January 2016

Melusine

MelusineBathMelusine on a Saturday Night” is among my newest stories to be published. It’s online in The Griffin and I offer the full story here on my website. My story is a modern re-telling of the legend of Melusine, a water fairy of rivers, wells and springs.

This is the original legend: To protect their mother from their father’s wrath, Melusine and her sisters locked their father inside a mountain. As punishment, Melusine was compelled to undergo a transformation every Saturday in the bath, temporarily reverting to a water serpent from the waist down–or a kind of mermaid. Part of the spell was that she could not be seen while bathing. Her water-fairy identity must remain a secret. She had to find a husband who would promise never spy on her in the bath. But a husband might fall prey to his curiosity.

A medieval illumination shows the scene:

Melusinediscovered

Melusine on a Saturday Night

I’m lost in a strange city. In a city of night I walk the pavements, bypassing the waterfront strip joints, the T-shirt boutiques, the stalls of smoking grilled meats, falafels, curries. I want a deep-dunking bath where I can be alone. A place to hide, muse, endure the night’s awful makeover. My deadline is near and I must find a haven quickly.

A place like the Hilton would be good. I hear the lounge is rose porcelain and the mirrors are framed in rococo gold. And I could stock up on pink tissues for my purse. But I’m nowhere near the Hilton or the Plaza or the Chelsea Savoy or even the city museum where the windows are supposed to be antique stained glass. I doubt if I’ll find that kind of sanctuary in the neighborhood I’ve wandered into. How did I drift so far from anything? I don’t know where I am.

A big tub in a bathroom that’s very secluded–can I find such a thing on short notice in this American city? It can’t be the River, where I’d be out in the open and seen by men. As I’m never to enjoy the love of men or even winged male spirits, I can’t risk being spied on. Being observed would add years to my punishment, which has been so long that I’ve lost count. My nature compels me, the ancient malediction compels me. I must be utterly alone to serve my penalty and then forever alone.

Down here by the Hudson River are the derricks and battleships. The docks reek of fish and seagulls, dumped garbage and floating bodies. It’s late, late, on a Saturday close to midnight. I’ve nearly run out of time. I’m getting to the point where I’m not going to be myself if I don’t find a refuge.

A wintry fog shrouds my heart, closing off the blood flow. The fog chills and frightens me, like the air I once breathed when I soared in a high wind over Antarctica.

I’ll say right now what this is about. My mother’s powers as a celebrated water fairy were strong, but they had limits. When my father–in a jealous rage over her new lover–trimmed and hacked and bloodied her wings, I and my sisters flew to her defense. My father was a notorious wizard. To save our mother from more of his vengeance, we three girls hatched an enchantment, and locked him in a mountain glacier in the gorges of Antarctica. We’d already mapped the shimmering ice-banked territories from the air, since our wings at that time were sturdier than our mother’s.

We established a snow-mantled citadel on the north coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was in the white wastes of the Jokulkyrka region near the Mühlig-Hoffmann Mountains that we ordered our magician architect to build a monstrous fortress like a staircase, a rise of three immense steps edged with long horse-teeth of ice. We bolted our father inside those bulwarks of pack-ice, imprisoned him, protesting, inside long cold corridors. Forever. The monotony of Antarctica is terrible. Ashen snow funnels upward in spirals. Clumps of crystalline snow break away from polar plateaus, and ice shelves cascade into a frozen sea. Endlessly. Nothing more.

We three girls had cast our triple hex so tightly that our father’s entombment is everlasting while his life goes on. Unfortunately, our magic isn’t sufficient to get him out. No magic is strong enough to undo what we’ve done, even if we should have a change of heart. Our parents now can never be reconciled. The guilt is ours for coming between them.

I was punished. What happened to my sisters, that is another story. As for me, my punishment is bitter. It was my witch of an aunt who laid it on me. I bear what I have to.

Every Saturday now since the beginning of time, it’s the same thing. I find myself put adrift in a city I’ve never seen before. Earth has so many. And I require a secret bath to undergo my transmutation. For just one night I’m forced to return to my original, serpentine, water-fairy shape, a physical conversion I have to tolerate unobserved by any man.

The penalty for being seen would be an added century to the present curse.

Shuffling now in desperation along the waterfront, I kick aside old newspapers on the cobbled street, broken glass, bones of garbage, a dead pigeon, even soiled money, a dollar bill in a water puddle, but money doesn’t interest me.

I skid across the oil slicks, past fuel tanks, a convention center. At last I push through the glass doors of Joe and Jerry’s Gulf Station. Gulf sounds good. Watery. Up front by the window I see a guest area for clients to wait, like a reading room with old magazines.

Coffee pot on a nicked table. A couch of splintering green wicker has brown flowered cushions flattened to a cozy decrepitude. From a stack on the radiator I pick up last month’s Service Station Management and flip through a story, showing an interest in the place, so Jerry won’t think I’m just looking for the bathroom. “Restoring Valve Harmony,” What does this mean? I can’t grasp every bit of language in every city I visit. I toss it aside. But there are some back issues of Field and Stream, which are more encouraging with this mention of streams. Before I can pick one, the Gulf Man calls to me. He has been talking to a pair of birds in a cage.

“Come and see my birds,” he says. He has Jerry stitched over the heart of his gray coveralls. I go over to the cage.

“What are these, love birds?” I ask.

“Yes, love-birds. They’re married. Their match is consecrated.”

“How so?” I poke a finger through the bars and a bird nips my finger.

“We had the bishop in on Sunday.” I am confused, and I don’t know if he is setting a trap for me, to find out what sort of creature I am.

A married husband and wife, and caged. I think of my father. And, as an other-worldly being, living apart from human laws, I feel the menace of a holy consecration, even of a pair of birds. To me, it’s curious that a mechanic, this Gulf man, hovers by the cage near the car-lift. He sprinkles birdseed in the cage. He ministers to this pair of beaky twitterers feathered in teal blue. Murmuring to them. I’m not sure about this place, so friendly to lovers, but I can’t hesitate any longer. Underneath the smell of fuel and axle grease I smell the perfect purity of water.

My time runs out, like a trickle of fine birdseed through fingers in a cage. “I would like the bathroom key,” I tell Jerry. My aunt’s rage hounds me. It will not let me go. But I’m up to it.

This Jerry gazes into my face. His eyes are brown and bright. I see what’s behind them, a recognition. I fear that he knows. This may be a trap. A betrayal. He doesn’t say anything.

I go to the back of the garage where I see a row of old Maxwell House cans, filled with screws and wrenches, cigar boxes stuffed with torn receipts, and an adding machine whose gears are clogged stiff with dusty oil. Suddenly I turn.

“Who is Joe?” I want to know.

“My partner. He’s on his way.”

I have to move fast before this Joe comes to join Jerry. I see a nail on the wall. From it hangs a wooden effigy of a girl in mechanic’s overalls labeled Barbie. She’s hooked by a thong in her ankle to a key handle. A boy labeled Ken hangs on a nail beside her. I can see they love each other. Couples again. I help myself to the Barbie key. I’m fearful, but I see the big clock reads four minutes to midnight.

“I need isolation,” I say. “No intruders. It has to be very private.”

“Probably it will be.” Jerry’s big face is solemn, unreadable. I am forced to count on him.

“You’ll tell Joe he has to keep away from me.”

“Sure.”

There’s a big locked door behind the car lift. The tumblers of the oiled lock yield to my key, and glide noiselessly. I let myself through the recessed door. I run downstairs and I come to a gloomy cave of sea-green marble. I glimpse the tiled bath, the sunken tub paved like a spa. I knew it was here…somehow.

Dug far beneath the infrastructure of New York City, the subway tunnels, gas pipes, electrical cables. All this. Baths fed by the surrounding waterways. Gowanus Canal. Plumb Beach Channel and Pumpkin Patch Channel. Jamaica Bay and Newtown Creek. The East River. The mighty Hudson.

Wall racks loaded with plush towels of the purest ivory white. I grasp the gold taps and turn on steaming gushers that pour in from hot subterranean pools. I shake in bath salts from an old, clean fish can. The scent wafts up in plumes from the clouding water. It’s jasmine, the kind that grows in a rain forest. I shuck off my Juicy Couture, bought today, every shred, and step down into the steaming frothing water. I sigh, let water rise to my ears. Torches in fishtailed brackets burst into fitful flames that glow along the black walls. What magic put them here? In some cities I understand some things, but not all, for my own forces have been undermined and diminished.

But it doesn’t matter. For now, I’m safe.

I close my eyes. Blowing bubbles I submerge and it’s not a minute too soon. The ancient pronouncement takes over my girl’s body. The heat seeps into all my openings, penetrating me to my sweltering marrow. Already I feel the tingling and trembling of my legs, stretching, tapering to points and destroying my feet. Membranes grow between my toes, webbing them, fusing them together. The arches tighten and collapse, spreading into tail fins.

The smooth skin thickens all over my lower body, belly and thighs, knees and shins. It erupts in a crust, a coarse rind like tree bark. I break out in painful lumpy boils that redden like a skin pox. The pustules burst, hardening into greenish scales, translucent and iridescent. My long blond hair floats sopping around me, strands greening to fronds of rank seaweed. The curling patch between my thighs has sprouted in a thicket of ferny vegetation. I wallow, helpless.

I feel my slimed tail thrashing, churning up waves and splashing the tiles. I’m afraid the high waves I’m making could put out the sputtering torches and I’ll be alone in the dark. In time my metamorphosis is complete. Human from the waist up, water serpent from the waist down with my mermaid’s tail I must get through this long night before my primeval punishment has run its course. Before I once again recover my human body.

Someone rattles the door. No, No!

Can it be an observer, a spy? Is it Joe or is it Jerry? A glittering eye presses against the door’s eyehole. Whose?

“Stay away,” I plead. “Stay far away from me.”

But I have no fairy gift to offer in return. As long as I’m in my altered state, my powers have waned. If I’m seen in my serpentine shape of a water fay, my secret is out and the ancient affliction will hold for another century. Escape, but where can I go? I tell myself I have to endure. City after city. I will endure. Whatever may become of me.

 

Copyright 2013 Marcelle Thiebaux