Cast of Wonders 292: Little Wonders 17: True Selves
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by Dagny Paul
The first time Leah turned into a fish, she had been small, maybe four, and she’d been sitting with her daddy on the rock that overlooked the lake. He had turned to her with his stubbled smile and his bright blue eyes and asked her if she’d wanted to dive. She didn’t know how to swim, she’d said, and he had said that’s okay, sweetheart, because we’ll be fish.
He’d stripped off his shirt and pulled her to her little feet, and before she’d even had time to think about it they had jumped. She’d never hesitated, never worried. He had never let her down.
It had always been just the two of them in the old cabin on the side of the hill. Mama had been gone a long time. She’d moved away long ago and she never called, although sometimes, on Leah’s birthday, the mail truck would bump down the dirt road through the holler and deliver a little package wrapped with twine, no return address, just Leah’s name in big scrolling letters on brown paper. Once, the package had contained a dogwood branch, the blooms just opening; another time, Leah had found a stiff bird’s nest with four perfect blue eggshells tucked inside. Daddy never said anything when she opened the boxes, just left the room to make a cup of coffee or fix a sandwich, but Leah could always feel him smiling from the kitchen when she pulled the box free of the twine and the paper. She and him, they’d always been able to read each other like that.
Leah couldn’t remember her mama’s face, just the wild dark hair, the long limbs and fine-boned hands that had stroked Leah’s cheek before she’d left. Mama had been there, touching Leah’s baby skin, and then she’d been gone.
Leah had asked Daddy why she’d left. All he ever said was, She had to, sweet pea. Some people’s not made to stay in one place. And then he’d smile his little smile and ask her if she wanted some hot chocolate or if she wanted to go to the lake and be fish.
She always wanted to go to the lake.
But now Daddy was gone, too, and Leah was fifteen, and she didn’t know where her mama was, so she would have to go live with Daddy’s sister, Aunt Tammy, who would send her to Bible school and summer camp, who said that Daddy had been crazy, keeping her alone out in the woods in that little shack–said that he was crazy, period, and that’s why he was out so late at night on the ice when his truck slid off the road and into that big oak at the bottom of the hill. Leah thought that Aunt Tammy was the crazy one, her and her bratty kids and her self-righteous scowls and her never once enjoying anything enough to say thank you. She always looked like she’d smelled skunk or worse. Her television was on all the time, the volume up as far as it would go, and her kids were always yelling and hitting each other, and her husband just sat in an armchair all day, drinking beer and staring at the screen. Leah’s Daddy had stayed far away from that mess, and Leah had been grateful.
Things had been so quiet in their little cabin. They could talk without talking, have whole conversations just by thinking about them. They could sit on the couch for hours together, not saying anything, and it was enough. More than enough. How could he leave all that, just plop her in the middle of the racket of his sour sister’s house? How could he go without even saying goodbye?
Leah clenched her teeth and wished for tears, but they’d all come out that morning at the funeral. She was dry as a bone, cold to freezing. Ice was starting to form at the corners of the lake, pretty little patterns interrupting the mirror of gray sky. It smelled like snow. Daddy had taught her how to smell the snow coming, and it was coming now.
Daddy had taught her everything. He’d taught her how to identify beaver dams, and he’d showed her the right way to patch a boat with tar, and he’d told her about the tiny shells at the edges of the lake and how they were from a long, long time ago, when Kentucky was at the bottom of the sea. He’d given her books and love and the secrets of the lake. What had she given him?
The last time Daddy had asked her to come to the lake with him had been that summer, when it was warm and the air smelled like honeysuckle. They’d been in town the day before getting groceries. She’d been chucking bread and milk into the cart when she felt eyes on her and looked up. There had been a group of kids, her age, maybe older, and they’d been pointing at her, and they’d been laughing. They didn’t look away when they saw her staring.
One of the girls had come over to her, and Leah had looked for her daddy instinctively–she could smell the meanness on the girl, could see it in her pinched face under her heavy makeup and bleached hair–but he was at the butcher counter at the other end of the store. The girl had leaned close, close enough that Leah could smell the cigarettes on her breath, and said something so horrible that Leah had shivered, something about her and her daddy, and the other kids had laughed, howling so loudly they couldn’t hear her say it wasn’t true.
It wasn’t true, but that didn’t make it hurt any less, and the more she thought about it, the more Leah felt unclean and ashamed. So when her daddy asked her to go to the lake that day when they got home, she had said no. She had said that everyone was right, that he was crazy, and they weren’t going to be fish and never had been. She had been mad, ugly, wanting to hurt him.
And she had. He hadn’t asked again.
Now, sitting on the rock overlooking the lake, the water cold glass over slate, she wished she could take it back. Her face burned through the chill air. She wanted to burrow under the blankets back at the cabin, to hide somewhere where no one would ever find her–not the truant officers, not Aunt Tammy, not even Mama.
Leah forced herself to pull off her boots. Her socks were thick, but her toes already felt numb from the cold. She pulled up her leggings and her jeans as far as they would rise up her calf, and goose pimples shivered along her pale skin.
She scooted out to the edge of the rock, hugging herself against the cold, and dipped a toe in. The water was a shock, not numbing but painful, so cold it felt hot, burning pokers in her heel and toes, but she forced herself to submerge her whole foot.
She peered at her naked foot under the water, bending down to check. No scales, no fins–just the bony, pale foot of a foolish girl begging for frostbite. She pulled it back out, ashamed, and immediately dried off with her parka. She pulled her socks and shoes back on and stood, jumping up and down to try to make the pain go away. When the stabbing feeling dulled, she wrapped her arms around her chest in the gathering dusk and stared out over the lake.
They had never been fish.
She was going to have to live with Aunt Tammy in that noisy, awful house that smelled like sour milk and rotten fruit.
Her daddy was gone for good.
Leah knew all these things were true. She knew them, but she couldn’t tear herself away from the lake, couldn’t bring herself to go back inside and shut the door behind her and spend her last night packing and saying goodbye to the empty house. She’d said so many goodbyes that week. She just couldn’t bring herself to say another one.
She inhaled deeply, and the cold air made her feel a little purer, a little braver. Once, Daddy had taken her out on the lake in the winter, and she’d held his hand while they watched the fish under the ice. They’re cold, he’d said. But they’re not sleeping. Just waiting. And then he’d looked at her and he’d smiled, and she’d smiled back.
And maybe it was the cold or just the numbness of the funeral wearing off, but a memory surfaced, an old one, and it was so powerful and sweet that she could almost feel his warm breath in her little pink four-year-old ear, could almost feel the roughness of his face against her soft cheek. She could hear her daddy saying, like he was right next to her: You’ve just got to jump, darlin’.
Leah closed her eyes and listened. The forest was still. Her blood hummed in her ears. She could hear every breath she took, ragged and uneven at first, then steadier, and finally calm and even.
She opened her eyes, and her vision was sharp and clear. She kicked off her shoes, her jeans, her leggings. She shrugged out of her parka and her flannel shirt, and she looked out over the water.
The water was so cold that Leah thought her heart might stop. She began to panic, and the pain was almost unbearable, but the bitter cold was soon replaced with nothingness, the feel of a lukewarm bath, of a spring day, and Leah’s anxiety faded. Her skin felt strong and smooth, hot to the touch, and she moved in the water with grace she had forgotten she possessed. The stones at the bottom were rounded and smooth, and little ice shards encrusted the shore from which she propelled herself into the center of the lake. Her body was on fire, warm and powerful, and her heart felt more whole than it had since before the day the policeman had come to the door with his hat in his hand, saying, I’m so sorry. There’s been an accident.
The scales were growing, and the fins, and she–she had always been so fast. She swam upstream and laughed through her gills, little bubbles rising to the surface of the lake. She spun and flipped and shot through the water like an arrow, a little silver thing that had no obligations and no bedtimes and no Aunt Tammy.
And as she cut through the lake, taking the winding path she and her daddy had taken all those years ago, a glimmer of light shone against the gray stones at the bottom of the lake. She swam down, down, down, toward that shine, and as it brightened, she saw that it was another fish, arcing its sleek, elegant form toward her, its scales the most beautiful blue.
Blue like her daddy’s eyes.
by Natalia Throdoridou
They emerge from the sea, dripping salt. He takes in the air in big gulps, as if breathing for the first time. The mare’s muscles tense under his thighs as they run across the shore. They don’t get to run far. A wave of fear and excitement ripples through man and beast both when the horse’s hooves get stuck to the soft soil underneath. They’re sinking into the salty, grey marsh. The man so young, barely a man at all, almost a boy. He struggles to free the mare, free himself; he pulls on her mane as hard as he can, striving to make her change direction. The mare’s feet fight against the quicksand, trying to find purchase. But they’re still sinking; the mud hugs the young man’s calves, then his knees, his thighs. The mare’s ears turn back in terror, and he strokes her mane with his free hand, while he waves around his sword with the other, in hope of hitting solid ground. He considers jumping off the saddle, letting the mare sink, trying to save himself, but he doesn’t. They understand each other as they stop fighting.
This is the way things are, here. Here, this is who we are.
The mare cranes her head backwards, and he caresses her strong neck. He can taste salt on his lips. He glimpses the grey sky one final time.
Then the earth swallows them whole, man, mare, and sword.
Cathy lay on the sand and stared at the impossible blue of the Aegean sky. How can it be this blue? she thought. The sky never looked like that in Scotland. She repeated that out loud, and Matina laughed. Her arm brushed Matina’s; the touch gave her gooseflesh.
Cathy hugged her arms to her chest. “I had the strangest dream last night,” she said.
“There was this man on a horse. Not even a man, almost a boy. They came out of the sea and they rode on a long, vast shore. There was this feeling of loss, but also release, like he was leaving a place he loved but which didn’t let him breathe.” Cathy paused. There were no clouds in the sky. How is that even possible? “Like he was running away from something, but he didn’t know what he was running towards,” she continued. “They got stuck in quicksand. They tried to get out, but in the end they gave up and let themselves sink into the mud.” Cathy shivered. “I can still feel the wet sand around my legs.”
Matina sat up from the sand, supporting herself on her elbows. “Wait, that was you on the horse?”
Cathy nodded, suddenly embarrassed.
“You were a guy?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, that’s weird,” Matina said, and lay back on the sand.
Is it? Cathy thought. Is it really that weird? She didn’t say anything.
“I’d quite like to live under the sea,” Matina mused.
Something inside Cathy’s chest tightened. “You would?”
“Myth says there used to be seahorses here, you know,” Matina said. “Hippocampi. Like the hippocampus in your brain.” She reached out her hand and caressed the side of Cathy’s head. “That’s where memory and identity live. It’s what we use to navigate space, to have a sense of direction.”
“How do you know all that stuff?” Cathy asked, trying not to be distracted by Matina’s fingers playing with her hair.
Matina smiled. “Cute biology teacher. He’s into ancient Greek stuff.”
“Ah,” Cathy said. “Of course.”
They remained silent for a while, watching the sun dive slowly behind Mount Olympus in the background. The sand started cooling in the afternoon breeze.
“It’s getting chilly,” Matina said, standing up. She took Cathy’s hand and pulled her to her feet. A rain of sand dripped down her legs. She dipped her bare toes deep into the beach.
“I can’t get enough of this,” Cathy said.
Matina laughed again. “Come on, lazy. We have to help your grandma set up for the party.” She grabbed Cathy’s face and peered at her eyebrows.
“We need to take care of those brows, girl.”
Cathy flinched. “Why? What’s wrong with my eyebrows?”
“They make you look like a boy.”
I like them the way they are, Cathy thought, but all she said was “Oh.”
“Come on,” Matina said, feeling around for her flip-flops with her feet. “Let’s go.”
Cathy took a last look at the sea. Far away, something shimmered on the surface of the water. A horse’s mane, she thought. Only foam.
They headed back, holding hands.
Candlelight made everyone’s faces look soft, edgeless. Cathy stood behind her birthday cake, flanked by her yaya and papou. She glanced at Matina across the table; in the glare of the candles, it was as if her curly hair swirled around her head, alive, smoky. An illusion. Matina the Illusionist.
Matina caught Cathy’s eye and smiled. People were singing the Greek version of “happy birthday” for Cathy, Greek cousins and neighbours and kids that just happened to be around for the summer–seventeen years in a row the family fled to Greece, to yaya and papou, leaving Scotland behind, cold and grey and oh so green even in summer, except this year her parents stayed behind, “working things out.” And yet, even after all these years, Cathy still felt out of place.
The song ended, and she blew out the candles. Everyone cheered and Cathy blushed, watching smoke dance out of the candle tips.
“Did you make a wish?” Matina shouted over the cheering and clapping.
Cathy clasped her hand to her mouth. “I forgot!”
“Quick, make one now,” Matina said, and the cousins chimed in. “Make a wish! Make a wish!”
“Don’t tell us what, though!” Matina added quickly. “It won’t come true if you tell.”
Not telling anyone your wishes, Cathy thought. What is that all about?
She closed her eyes tight, and wished, and wished.
That night, they lit a fire on the beach and sang and danced till their legs burnt and their chests felt so light, a single sneeze and they would take off towards the stars, teenage cosmonauts in gooseflesh skin and candlelight eyes. Matina danced with all the boys, twirling around them like smoke, now fast, now slow and ethereal, until she wore them out, and then she hugged Cathy close and smokedanced with her. She traced Cathy’s freshly plucked eyebrows with her fingers and smiled a conqueror’s smile. “Much better,” she said, satisfied, victorious. Matina the Conqueror, Cathy thought, and for a moment she didn’t care about how much she hated her plucked eyebrows.
They swayed together in the early chill, and Cathy couldn’t stop playing her unspoken wish in her mouth. All these invisible wishes, for what? Who said it should be so? She pictured people carrying around what they desired most like a secret, wrapped tight and smuggled through their lives, hidden under their clothes, behind their hearts, in the back of their minds.
In the distance, she thought she heard hooves splashing through water.
They fell asleep on the sand, arms wrapped tight around each other and lulled from so much closeness–for warmth, but it was still closeness.
Behind Cathy’s eyelids, he drips saltwater again as he runs away on his horse, resolved to breathe, to be who he is. Disoriented and lost, he rides through grassland, then through lake, then through sea and marsh. The mare shivers beneath his thighs when her hooves get caught in the mud one more time, every time. Frantic, she strives to free herself, pure muscle and animal will. Her mane crowns her head, so grey and so fine it looks like smoke. Cathy pulls a tuft of hair as he tries to stir the mare out of the quicksand, but he already knows that, once again, he’ll fail. Here, he is the boy who sinks. Who cannot breathe. Who cannot be. He already knows how the dream ends.
They were awakened by the early morning bathers who started descending on the beach as soon as the sun peeked over the mountains. They stretched their aching bodies and shook sand out of their hair.
“Come on,” Matina said and pulled Cathy to her feet before running head-on into the sea.
The cold water shocked Cathy into a strange alertness, as if she’d just emerged from something damp and heavy and inescapable.
They swam at full speed and then let themselves float, the rays warming their bodies all the way through to their cores. When they had soaked up enough sun, they returned to shore and walked along the foam, hair and bathing suits still dripping, flip-flops in hand.
They made their way to the end of the beach, a long stretch of sand, accentuated by prickly pears and the occasional pine tree. At its far side, the sand gave way to rocks and masses of seaweed.
Matina and Cathy put on their flip-flops to walk over the seaweed and jagged rocks. Then they climbed on top of a large boulder overlooking the bay.
Matina lay on the boulder, her stomach glistening in the sun. Cathy looked out to the sea. The air was so clear, she could make out the villages at the foot of Mount Olympus across the bay.
“We should go sometime,” Cathy said.
“To the mountain. Climb to the top. Meet the gods.”
Matina laughed and patted her stomach, inviting. Cathy lay her head gently on the girl’s navel and stared at the impossible blue of the sky. It felt as if Matina was the only thing tethering her to the ground. If I were sinking, she thought, you are the only person that would make me want to hold on. That I could hold on to.
She felt the girl’s warmth under her neck. Matina the Anchor. She closed her eyes and searched for Matina’s hand. When she found it, she held on tight.
Cathy lifted her head and turned to look at Matina. The unspoken wish felt like a pebble in her mouth, cold and hard. She shrugged.
Matina sat cross-legged next to Cathy and nudged her. “Tell me,” she said.
“Summer’s almost over. I’ll have to go back soon.” Cathy looked away. “I’ll miss you.”
“Aww. Come here,” Matina said and hugged Cathy tight.
Cathy wrapped her arms around Matina, breathing in the salty perfume of her hair. I wish. I wish. She took Matina’s face in her hands and, for a moment, it was perfect.
Then, Matina drew back. “What are you doing?” Her expression was painted with something dark and wild.
Cathy hugged her arms close to her body and looked down. “I’m sorry. I thought…” She trailed off. “I’m so sorry.”
Matina stood up. “What did you think, Katerina?” she asked, using Cathy’s Greek name. She only did that when she was angry or disappointed.
Cathy’s breath scraped her throat like hot metal. Suddenly she felt disoriented, as if she didn’t know which way was land and which was sea. “I like you, that’s all,” she whispered.
“But you’re a girl,” Matina said.
Cathy stared at the sea, the foam, the waves. I wish, I wish.
Matina turned to leave, then stopped. “I’m sorry,” she said. Her voice was softer now. That wild thing was gone. “If you were a boy. Then it would be different,” she said, and climbed down the rocks.
Cathy stayed on the rock, staring at the sea until her eyes hurt and her skin stung, baked pink. As the sun began descending towards Mount Olympus, the wind rose, and waves crashed higher and higher against the rocks. It was time to go home.
Cathy stood, but instead of climbing down the rocks towards her grandparents’ house, she went the other way.
There was a narrow slice of beach on the other side of the rocks. The sand was all but covered in wet green kelp. With the wind rising, this part of the beach would disappear soon. Cathy wondered what would happen if she just walked into the sea right then, and kept walking. What if she went in and never came back out again?
A wave crashed against her calves. For a moment, she thought she saw a dark figure in the water out of the corner of her eye. She turned and there was a horse in the sea; its foam-crested mane floated on the surface of the waves. Its hind legs disappeared into a long, scaly tail–a thing from an ancient Greek mosaic, blended with Scottish lore.
She felt light-headed. She closed her eyes and leaned against the rocks. When she opened her eyes again, the sea-horse was gone. A young man was standing a few metres from her, with his feet in the shallow water.
You got seaweed in your hair, she almost said, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.
The man took a step towards Cathy. His feet sank deeper into the wet sand with every wave.
“Are you the man from my dream?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “You are.”
This felt true and not true at the same time. A girl who’s not-a-girl. A man who’s a boy. A boy who’s not-a-boy. Cathy tried to speak, but her tongue was heavy and slow, as if trapped under a stone. A girlboy who’s foam, salt, smoke. “Am I dreaming?” she asked, thinking everything had just made sense.
“How do you know?”
“I know you,” he said. “I know the feeling of your hands grasping my mane when we ride.”
But we are running, aren’t we? We are sinking, aren’t we?
He took another step towards the shore, but stopped at the edge of the water, as if unable to step on dry land. “Come with me,” he said.
“You know where. You’ve spent enough time trying to be someone you’re not. Come back with me.”
“But that is where we get stuck in the quicksand. Where we are lost. Where we cannot breathe,” Cathy said.
“And here, can you breathe?”
Matina’s image flashed before Cathy’s eyes.
“Come home,” the man insisted. “All will be forgiven. You can be who you are again.”
“You don’t know who I am.”
“I know the feeling of your muscles on my back. I know you as you are when you are truly awake.”
“You don’t know me,” Cathy said again. She felt blindly behind her, desperate for the feeling of rock under her fingers, something as solid and real as a sword.
And why can’t I be who I am here?
Why can’t I try?
She looked past the man in the water, familiar in all his oddity–his grey-sky hair and candlelight eyes. Something was burning across the bay. Beyond the sea, a column of smoke rose towards the blue sky.
Yaya and papou are here. This blue, blue sky is here.
She is here.
“I’m going to stay,” she decided. “I want to dream some more.”
She got back home in late afternoon. Yaya and papou had been worried, but they tried not to show it. Cathy hugged them and kissed them on both cheeks, but told them she wanted to be alone for a little while.
She sat on the balcony and stared out to the sea until Matina came and sat next to her. She had the leftovers of yesterday’s cake on a paper plate. They ate in silence out of the same plate, sitting side by side.
Cathy didn’t sleep that night. She lay in bed, remembering the texture of a mane in her hand, the feeling of muscles tensing under her thighs. She closed her eyes and listened to ghostly waves–muffled, subdued, mixed with the distant sound of galloping.
About the Authors
Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers, and a writer of strange stories. Natalia’s work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, and elsewhere. For more, visit www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.
Dagny Paul is a lapsed English teacher, failed artist, and sometimes writer who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies, which she consumes whenever her five-year-old son will let her (which isn’t often). Dagny is Assistant Editor of PseudoPod, and you can follow her on Twitter.
About the Narrators
Erika Sanderson trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, UK.
A highly versatile character actress, Erika has created a myriad of roles in a variety of genres from children’s theatre to classical plays musical theatre and video games. She can regularly be heard on The NoSleep Podcast and Star Wars: Convergence as a voice actor.
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.
About the Artist
Catherine Unger is a 2D Game Artist and illustrator based in the sunny town of London.