River Witch

by Maureen Bowden

 

I first saw Melusina perched on a rock alongside the narrow river that runs through our local park. I assumed she was wearing a swimsuit, but her long auburn hair concealed it. She didn’t notice me, but I was close enough to see her pupils dilate when she looked at Freddie, who was posing with a football, showing off his prowess to the neighbourhood bimbos.

I sat beside her. “You fancy him, don’t you?”

She turned to me. Her eyes were so dark, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of an open coalmine. “Why does that concern you?”

I took a mental step back from the black chasm. “I’m his sister.”

She laughed, and a shiver ran down my back. “Relax. Your sibling’s safe. I’ve vowed never again to get involved with a mortal, but there’s no harm in looking. Right?”

“Right,” I said, “but are you telling me you’re not mortal?”

“I’m not telling you anything. I was thinking aloud.”

“Well, keep doing it. I’m interested.”

She turned the coalmines on me again. “What’s your name?”

“Fiona. What’s yours?”

“Melusina. I’m a river witch.” She slid off the rock, into the water, and I caught a glimpse of her true form. “You can Google me.” She flicked her tail and swam away.

Google was illuminating, as always, but not necessarily true. No problem, I thought. I’ll check the details when she comes back. I knew she would. How could a badass version of the little mermaid resist Freddie with his pop-star smile and ballet dancer grace?

The following Saturday afternoon I spent an hour in the park sketching my brother, as he lounged on a lakeside bench, playing his guitar and singing a self-penned protest song about oppressed workers: ironic, as he was a stranger to anything resembling work. The song was mediocre but he was a good model: blond hair gelled to rigidity, high cheekbones and hips as slim as a Barbie Doll’s. You know the type.

I finished the sketch, packed my pad and pencils into my satchel and left him basking in the adoration oozing from his latest squeeze, Sophie Melancamp, the receptionist from Vision Express. She lay on the grass at his feet.

I walked alongside the river that fed the lake, and I wasn’t surprised to see Melusina swimming close to the bank. We reached her rock. I sat on it. She stayed in the water.

She didn’t preamble. “What’s your brother’s name?”

“Freddie.”

She sighed. “That’s what I used to call Siegfried. He reminds me of him.”

“Google said Siegfried was your one true love. Was he?”

She shrugged. “I don’t remember. A thousand years is a long time to hang onto trivial emotions. What other pearls of wisdom did Google cast before you?”

“You left him and your children because he spied on you taking a bath. Why so modest?”

“I didn’t wish to see fear or repulsion in his eyes when he witnessed my transformation.” She pulled herself out of the river. Her tail shed its silver scales and divided into long slender legs, and she draped her hair across her shoulders, covering her naked body.

“Yet you allowed me to witness it.”

“You’re not a man.” She made it sound like a dismissal. Why should she care about my reaction? I didn’t matter.

“Was he frightened or repulsed?” I said.

“I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d warned him. I’d stay with him if he promised never to watch me bathe. That was our bargain. He broke his promise.”

“But how could you abandon your children?”

“I knew they’d manage without me, and they did. One of their descendants married the English king, Edward IV. Your royal family are of her bloodline.”

“Do they grow tails when they’re in the bath?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them in the bath.” She reached for my hand and kissed it. “May I stay with you for a while, Fiona?”

My stomach fluttered. This was a disturbing turn of events. I knew she was dangerous and I should scream and head for the hills, but she fascinated me, and I didn’t pull my hand away.

“You may, if you let me paint your portrait.”

“You’re an artist?”

“Trying to be.”

“It’s a deal. Bring me some clothes.”

I brought her a summer dress, sandals and underwear. She pulled the dress over her head, slipped her feet into the sandals, and threw the bra back to me, “That won’t fit,” followed by the panties, “They’d get in the way if I had to transform in a hurry.”

I took her home to my one-bedroom flat and led her into the living room that doubled for a studio. “You can have the bedroom,” I said. “I’ll use the bed-settee in here.”

She looked at the paintings leaning against the wall. “They’re good. Have you sold many?”

“Not yet. I make my living illustrating children’s books, but if I can get together enough paintings to hold an exhibition I hope people will start buying them.

“I can make it happen.”

“How?”

“I’m a witch, remember? Put my portrait in your exhibition.”

We began next day. She posed naked. “Can you make the tail come?” I said.

“No. I can only transform when I’m submerged in water.”

“I could fill a bucket and chuck it over you.”

“If you do I’ll hit you with the bucket.”

I painted the tail from memory.

Our time together was the happiest I’d ever known, but I knew it wouldn’t last. She was interested in Freddie, not me. She examined my sketches of him serenading Sophie in the park. “Is he a musician?

“No, he’s a university student.”

“What’s he studying?”

“Social interaction via the medium of graphic novels.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t seem to involve much work.”

“Does he visit you often?”

“Yes, whenever he wants money.”

He turned up one evening with an empty wallet and a winning smile. Melusina was sitting in my antique rocking chair plaiting her hair.

Freddie ignored me, sat cross-legged on the rug beside her, and said, “Hi. I’m Freddie.”

“I know,” she said, sliding out of the chair, and joining him on the rug. “I’m Mel.”

I sketched them getting acquainted: the whispers, sly, predatory smiles, and touching fingers. The following week she moved in with him. I coped with my desolation by focusing on my artwork. The sketches would form the basis of the final painting for my exhibition.

It was a success. Agents for two foreign businessmen offered me obscene amounts of money for my portrait of Melusina with the tail. I sold it to the highest bidder for enough to finance a comfortable lifestyle even if I never sold another painting. I did, however, sell others, and continued to do so as fast as I could produce them. My reputation as an artist grew. So did my bank account.

I found a new apartment. It had a large studio situated to catch the setting sun’s blue and gold light, and two bedrooms, in case Melusina came back. I had everything I wanted except her. Freddie had her.

I sent them details of my new address. They sent me a ‘Good Luck in Your New Home’ card, bearing a picture of a country cottage. I suspected it came from The Card Factory’s discount shelf.

Six months later she turned up at my door, pale, trembling and her hair in a mess. She sat in the rocking chair, gave a deep sigh, and closed her eyes. I placed a cushion behind her head and poured her a brandy. “What’s up?” I said.

“Your brother’s given me a gift I didn’t want.”

I knew what she meant. I’d anticipated this. “You’re pregnant.”

She nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

“I came here to say goodbye. Freddie won’t want a child and he’ll lose interest in me. I’m leaving before that happens.”

“Don’t go,” I said. “When the baby’s born bring it here. We’ll raise it together. I’ve always wanted a child.”

She drained her glass and passed it back to me. “So, why don’t you have one of your own?”

“I don’t like men.”

“Use a sperm bank. You can afford it.”

“I’d still have to give birth and I don’t want to do that. Please bring your baby here.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You may not like men, but I do.”

Of course she did. I’d been fooling myself. “So you’ll flick your tail, swim away, and in a thousand years or so another pretty boy will take your fancy.”

“No. I’m done with mortals.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“Yes, but I’ll have my child with me this time.”

“I thought it was a gift you didn’t want.”

“It was, but maybe motherhood will help me to grow up.”

“Mel, please don’t go.”

Her dark eyes seemed to see into my soul, and I knew she understood. “You don’t want just any child. You want mine.”

“Yes, if I must lose you.”

“Alright. I’ll stay until the baby’s born, I’ll give it to you, and then I’ll go, but there’s a condition.” I held my breath. “I’ll come back in seven years time and you must allow the child to choose between us.”

I had to agree. If I refused I’d never see the baby.

I spent the next five months stocking up with everything a new baby would need. I was terrified, but happy. Seven years might be all the time I’d get to be a mother, but it was better than nothing.

She returned late one night. Her belly was distended and she leaned against me for support. “When’s the baby due?” I said.

“Sooner the better. I’m in labour.”

My throat dried and my heart pounded. “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“No,” she screamed. “Nobody must see it when it’s first born. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. You can help me.”

I barely remember what I did, but it was an easy birth. After we cleaned and dried her son his tail split into legs. We laid him in his cot and he slept.

I made her comfortable. “Will you be alright?” I said.

“Yes. I heal quickly. Thank you, Fiona. Now go to bed.”

When I awoke next morning her bed was empty.

Later that day Freddie came looking for her.

“Where’s Mel?”

“She’s gone,” I said.

“Where?”

“I don’t know, but she’s not coming back.”

He glanced at the baby in my arms. “Is that—?”

“Yes. It’s your son.”

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

“Leave him with me. It’s what Mel wanted.”

He looked puzzled, but not distressed. He was always too selfish to be distressed for long. He and Mel had made a good match. I wondered if the outcome would have been different if she’d revealed her true nature to him and he’d accepted it. I doubted it. “I suppose you expect me to give you money,” he said.

I laughed. “Oh sure. Like I expect the Tooth Fairy to show up when required, and leave a gold coin under his pillow. Close the door on your way out, Freddie.”

A month later he phoned to say he’d left University and was taking a gap year, exploring the Australian Outback with Sophie Melancamp. It’s more likely that they were sunbathing on Bondi beach.

I named the baby Alexander. Each time I bathed him his chubby legs fused into a golden-scaled tail. I took him to a deserted beach on moonlit nights, and we played in the breakers. He swam, dived and twisted, gurgling with contentment in his natural element.

I sketched him, painted him, and added his image to one of Melusina’s portraits. I told him stories about his mother: the beautiful mermaid. He was interested, but she couldn’t compete with Spider Man and the Ninja Turtles. I also told him about his father, but as Freddie had no super powers to recommend him he had no place in Alexander’s list of priorities. I did. He called me Auntie Fi, he loved me, and he was dearer to me than his mother had ever been. We were happy, but a dark dread haunted me

On his seventh birthday I took him to the river. Melusina was sitting on the rock where I first saw her. “Xander,” I said, “this is your mama.”

She slipped into the water and beckoned to him. “Come and swim with me, Xander.” I resented her using my pet name for him.

He pulled off his clothes and joined her. His legs fused into a tail and he laughed and reached for her hand. I sat on the bank and watched them. He waved to me. I waved back and tried to smile while my heart was breaking.

“Would you like to come and swim with me in the sea?” she said to him.

He called to me, “Can I, Auntie Fi?”

“Yes, if you’re sure you want to go with her, but she won’t bring you back.”

“You can come with us.”

“I can’t, Xander. I don’t have a tail.”

Melusina said, “You can come, Fiona. I’ll transform you, and I’ll take care of you and the boy.”

I thought about what she was offering me: a life of freedom, roaming the oceans with the only two people who were ever important in my life. If I refused I might lose them both, but I knew she’d never change. She’d continue to leave discarded lovers and children scattered across the five continents, and some day she’d discard us too.

“Thank you, but no. I’m a mortal and I belong on the land.” I turned to Alexander. “You have to choose between us.”

He pulled himself onto the bank, transformed, and ran into my arms. I kissed his wet hair and held him close, waiting for his answer. “I want to stay with you, Auntie Fi.”

The fear that had oppressed me for seven years scuttled off into the sunset. Good riddance. It could take the river witch with it. I looked at her, expecting to see either sorrow or anger in her coalmine eyes, but I saw relief to equal mine.

She inclined her head in acceptance, dived beneath the rippling water, flicked her silver tail, and was gone.

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Maureen Bowden

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