Aphelion Issue 232, Volume 22
September 2018
 
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The Rusalka's Embrace

by Christopher Palmer




Alexa hadn't planned on ending up diametrically across the country from her home in Southern California, bundled up and drinking vodka on a cold, pebbly beach in southern Maine. She wasn't sure now what her dreams had been, but they never involved dropping out of college and working at Frank's Clam Hut. Or leaving Angie behind in California.

The sun was setting like a curtain dropping, leaving York Beach in shadow. Alexa saw a green flash. Not the rare green flash from a West Coast sunset, but a phosphorescent glow that moved along the rocky wall to the right of the beach, as if something large was swimming along the rocks and triggering bioluminescent plankton. She had heard of this, but never witnessed it. She rose stumbling to investigate, vodka bottle dangling in her grip.

The rocks were in the sunset's shadow and the streetlights from the ridge did little to illuminate them. They were rough with barnacles and draped with horsetail kelp. The water was icy, but the waves low.

"This is stupid," she told herself as she crawled out over the rocks.

"You're not stupid, Alexa," said a voice that made her juggle the bottle and almost lose her balance.

"Wh... uh... Who is it?" she asked, but there was no answer. She secured her footing and took a drink, scanning the shore frantically. "Not funny!"

"Please be calm. No harm will come to you I promise. I know you from long ago, from a warmer place than this."

Images of La Jolla Cove filled her mind with such detail she felt the warm sun and smelled rosemary for a moment. As a child, she had been sure a mermaid lived in the sea cave there.

"Are you a mermaid?" she asked and giggled. Maybe it was the vodka, but she felt dislocated, as if observing herself while dreaming.

"If you like. A name is a name and not the thing itself. Names are for things you put on a shelf."

"Okay. Officially getting creeped out here," Alexa said.

The voice remained calm. "I watched you from my cave in the cove as you and your friend…"

"Angie?"

"... you surfed and you dove and I knew you loved her and the sea. And me? I've seen more beaches than you've seen sunsets."

"Are you singing to me?"

"No, no, my pet. Just talk. It only sounds like the rush of tide, the wash of waves, and the sand's soft slide."

"I don't like it here." Alexa crumpled down with legs curled back along the side of her hip. "I'm freezing. I'm so tired of being cold," she said and took a pull of icy vodka. "I hate my job and I've apparently lost my mind and I'm talking to waves."

She leaned over and stared down at the swirling phosphorescence, but she couldn't see what swam beneath. Just a hint of a lithe, dark shape that dove under the boulder's base.

A gentle splash and the voice behind her said, "The sea is always the temperature of the sea and it's never too cold nor too warm for those such as me. A fortnight ago I was in the Caribbean and months before that I swam the Great Reef, but I'm just as content in the Caspian in winter or swimming alone under the Arctic ice sheath."

"Hah. You are rhyming," Alexa said, with a slur in her voice. "Kinda at least." She drank again, and the wrong kind of warmth spread in her chest.

"I want to see you," Alexa said.

"If you are ready, just turn your head."

Alexa reversed her seating and faced the darker rocks along the shore, overlooking a deep pool that lay between the rocks and land. In the faint luminescence, a woman's body was visible just below the surface, shimmering. The woman's long hair surrounded her face like a flowing mane and her eyes were glimmering. Alexa thought she looked like Angie, then that she looked nothing like her, but she was beautiful. Her face just broke the water, leaving it shadowed compared to her undulating body. Her hand rose to just below the surface, as if awaiting a kiss.

"Touch my hand and see what it's like. Don't be afraid, I won't grab or bite."

Alexa rested the bottle between her legs and extended her hand into the water. Her breath caught. It was like reaching into an ice chest. But when she touched the back of the woman's hand, the skin was warm as if she were lying in summer sun and Alexa had reached out, as she had so often, to hold Angie's hand on the beach. The cold sea then felt as warm as bathwater. As promised, the hand made no move to take her own, but Alexa snatched hers back into the chilly air where it softly steamed. The woman's laugh sounded like the tinkling of breaking icicles as Alexa stuck her hand under her arm to warm it.

"That's what the water is for me. My land, my air, as well as my sea."

"You really are a mermaid, then?"

"Rusalka. Or kelpie. La sirena? Names do not matter. I am what I am. Some are foul, some flatter. But I can give a great gift, the gift of the sea, just reach out your hands and you can be just like me."

"A mermaid? A fish? I'd go anywhere but here if I had a real wish." Alexa covered her mouth as she snorted, her eyes widening in surprise at what she'd said. The woman laughed her icicle laugh again.

"We'll go together. We'll stay close, warm, and wet. Swimming warm seas by day and at night, no regrets. We'll be rocked by the waves under moonlight and stars. We'll be together forever. No limits. No bars."

"But I'll miss…"

"No, you won't. There are wonders down here you can't see by boat. Gold treasures teeming where dead gods lie dreaming. Creatures unseen and lost cities drowned. All manner of miracles abound." She dove beneath the rocks and Alexa saw her long, sinuous lower limbs swirl behind her, enrobed in diaphanous fins like silk floating around her naked form. It was dark on the rocks when the luminescence faded.

"I'm lonely, like you," the sea woman said as she came up behind her. "There are no men of our kind, so what else can I do to love someone fair, who loves the sea more than the air? If you would just shed those rags and forsake the cold, fortune and happiness favor the bold."

Alexa drained the last of the vodka and reflected a moment before standing. She could barely see the woman, but she stared into her glimmering eyes as she removed her heavy coat and let it fall on the rocks. She then removed her shoes and socks and stood upon the coat, so the barnacles wouldn't cut her. The cold burned her feet.

"That's it. Yes," the woman said as she rose out of the water, glowing rivulets streaming down across her breasts.

Alexa stripped off her flannel lined pants and then her quilted shirt, never breaking eye contact. Her skin so goose-fleshed that it looked scalier and bluer than that of the sea woman.

"So beautiful and nice. Not fit for this world of dry land and ice," she said and rose higher.

The last of her undergarments discarded, Alexa stood naked and breathed out her last vaporous breaths into the night. The creature was just above eye level with her now. Hovering. Glorious and lovely. Her veil-like fins and hair swirled around as if she were still at the whim of the currents. Alexa stepped forward toward her, almost against her will, but not quite. Her chin quivered as she thought about what she was doing. What she would be abandoning.

"That's it. Embrace me. Don't cry. You'll change and be happy."

Alexa, shivering, stepped gingerly on the rock's rough surface to where the woman's arms reached for her. A harder shiver as the warm arms encircled her, pulling her flesh to flesh, breast to breast, and face to neck as they slid backwards into the deeper water.

"All you must do is die," the rusalka said as the warm water embraced them.



THE END


2018 Christopher Palmer

Bio: Christopher Palmer lives in Huntsville, Alabama where he writes software, collects books, writes, plays games, and likes to cook. His publications include “Ho Ho Horrible” in Shades of Santa and “The Works of the Apprentice” in an upcoming print anthology.

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