by Kristina Ten
Edited by Ashley Deng
The first time a tail popped up from the depths of the soup pot, Po didn’t think twice about it. She’d been hunched over her grandmother’s old recipe book for a week, trying to find the perfect one to make for the upcoming potluck at Molly’s.
Molly was always hosting potlucks, ever since she’d moved into that fancy new loft in Somerville, the one with the stainless steel double oven with touchpad controls. Every potluck had a theme, and this time, the theme was cultural exchange. Molly was making colcannon, black pudding, and probably at least three different Irish desserts, while everyone else was just scrambling to put something edible together. Po was putting all her chips on a book of Russian soup recipes, which she’d inherited after the death of her grandmother—Rostov-on-Don’s famed soup maker, Agrafena Sergeevna—the previous year.
So the first time a fish tail popped up, she didn’t think twice. She thought, Oh, good, the ukha is coming along nicely, and sprinkled another palmful of dill into the broth. It wasn’t until the tiny sneeze burst forth, echoing against the pot’s metal walls, that Po realized something was wrong. She hadn’t been making fish soup at all.
The rusalka rose from the murky broth, bits of parsley and bay leaf tangled in her hair. She scrunched her nose, sneezed again, then swam to the side of the pot, swatting the occasional potato chunk out of her path. When she reached the side, she pulled herself up, draped her elbows leisurely over the rim, and let out an enormous yawn, her sharp teeth glinting in the kitchen’s yellow light.
“Tebe ne stydno?” she croaked, flicking her tail against the surface. “Your soup tastes like shit.” Seeing the look of shock on Po’s face, the rusalka cackled so loudly that the bubbles in the broth jiggled and burst.
In the weeks that followed, the rusalki became a constant presence. Every time Po tried to make a soup, they showed up, with their blonde-green hair and their too-long arms and their strange skin, a ghoulish, near-translucent gray that glistened like the moon in some places and in others seemed to be rotting away. These were not the mermaids of Po’s childhood, who sang beautiful songs and wore modest seashells over their breasts, who collected ordinary items from the world of men as if they were priceless treasures. When Po stuck a fork into the pot to stir the cabbage in her shchi, a rusalka grabbed hold and didn’t let go until she’d bent the tines in half.
When Po made pelmeni, the rusalki batted the dumplings around like the ball in a miniature game of water polo, tearing the thin dough. When she made borscht, they slapped their tails wildly, sending the beet juice splashing out of the pot until it had stained every one of her tea towels. In the rassolnik, they looked the most like the swamp creatures they were, floating at eye level between the pickled cucumbers and carrots like gators stalking their prey. Only the rusalki swore up and down they would never eat Po’s cooking.
“Ha!” they cackle-croaked. “Very funny, but our taste is too refined for that.”
The more Po messed up the recipes—overcooked, underseasoned, wrong kind of mushrooms, past-date sour cream—the more rusalki appeared. On her seventh attempt at her grandmother’s summer borscht, just as she realized she’d accidentally bought low-fat instead of full-fat yogurt, ten heads emerged through the surface, dripping vivid pink. They crowded shoulder to shoulder, treading water and shouting over one another like partygoers in an at-capacity hot tub. But they weren’t yelling at each other—they were yelling at Po, their voices hoarse and scolding.
“Have you ever had borscht so flavorless?” one asked another, assembling a dollop of sour cream on top of her head as if it were bubble-bath foam.
“Never!” the other replied, sniffing at a wilted sprig of dill. “Ona vobshe tupaya! Agrafena would turn in her grave.”
Po hadn’t known her grandmother very well, but she figured they were right. The celebrated Agrafena Sergeevna, jewel of Rostov-on-Don, her father’s mother, who she had met only once, on a family trip through Russia when she was just eight years old. Agrafena, whose husband had died young in a chemical plant accident and who never remarried, but who wore his pressed slacks along with her magenta lipstick every day for the rest of her life. Whose hair stayed a fiery auburn into her sixties, not a strand of gray—and, no, she didn’t dye it, thank you very much, and why should anyone suggest it? Because Feefee was a good, honest woman, besides being an exceptional soup cook.
People traveled from all over the oblast for a bowl of Agrafena’s sour solyanka, and even farther for her special mushroom and potato soup. Po knew this, and the rest of it, because her father had told her, back when Agrafena was still alive and he could talk about her proudly, without tearing up. Now he changed the subject every time the conversation veered even in the general direction of his mother, so the family was careful not to bring up Russia or soup, certainly not snow or kitchens, not orthopedic shoes, nor air travel, nor hand-painted wooden ladles, nor the color red.
The last thing Po’s father told her about Agrafena was that she had wanted the recipes to go to her only granddaughter, and that he would be shipping them express to Boston in the next day’s mail.
There was so much Po wanted to know, so much she wished she would’ve asked when she still had the chance. Like was her grandmother afraid of thunderstorms? Did she like being called Feefee? Did she take the bus to work in the mornings or drive? What kind of flowers were her favorite? Did she cry at the ends of books because she was so sad they were over, that the time had come for her to be evicted from their imagined worlds? Did she floss every day? Did anyone? What made her laugh quietly to herself when no one was around to ask her why she was laughing?
None of Po’s questions had anything to do with soup, yet that was all she had left of Agrafena. The book of recipes, whose faded floral cover and handwritten pages looked so out of place in Po’s updated kitchen, in her small but modern apartment, equidistant between Fenway Park and the Charles. When the book arrived, she’d had to call her mother to help translate some of the scribbled Cyrillic to familiar English over the phone.
Molly’s potluck was fast approaching, and Po still had nothing to show for it. Just a pot full of jeering rusalki, who were quick to tell her when her cabbage was too stringy or her cream too thick, who were completely resistant to the water’s boil and even seemed to enjoy it, luxuriating and braiding one another’s grimy hair in the steam.
Molly, who had just graduated from Boston University with a degree in Irish Studies, thought the cultural exchange potluck would be a good opportunity for their friend group to share their unique heritages. Molly’s nana lived in a stately brick colonial in Walpole, less than an hour away by commuter rail, which Molly had visited at least once a month as long as Po had known her. Every two years, their whole family vacationed in the Irish countryside. Molly sent postcards of immense stone castles and sprawling green lawns. One year, she’d brought Po back a short cape made of wool from real Galway sheep.
With the potluck less than a week away, Po was getting desperate. Surely, she thought as she flipped through the book, she should be able to get at least one of the soups right. But on top of the standard challenges that came with not being a very good cook to begin with, the rusalki added another hitch. Gray and ghoulish and deathly cold as they were, they dropped the temperature of the water around them—and with enough of them in the pot, it was nearly impossible to keep it at a boil.
“What is this, Baikal?” one rusalka sneered, shivering.
Another lifted herself onto one of the pot’s handles and peered down at the burner knobs. “Glupyha,” she said. “She probably forgot to turn it on!”
The merciless taunting. The looming pressure of the potluck and Molly’s silent, smiling judgment of each dish that came through the door. The shame Po felt at having the recipe book of the great Agrafena Sergeevna, a coveted memento so many would have killed for, and failing repeatedly to produce anything of worth. It was like she was spitting on her grandmother’s grave, and the rusalki were there to remind her that even the spit could use a bit more salt.
It was all getting to be too much. So Po decided to take matters into her own hands.
First, she tried to drown them, which she realized in retrospect might not have been the wisest extermination method for water dwellers like rusalki. She really thought she had them. Using the handle of a spatula, she stirred the water so fast, so hard, in one direction, then the other, until the rusalki were dizzy and disoriented, gripping tightly to parsnip slices like life rafts. After not too long, she had created a roiling whirlpool, and it looked like one of them might get sucked down—to where exactly, Po wasn’t sure. But no one got sucked anywhere, and eventually Po’s arms grew tired, and the most she accomplished was causing one rusalka to heave gobs of globby purple sick into the broth.
Next, Po tried to burn them out. Into the pot, she poured every spicy ingredient she could think of: diced chilis, cayenne pepper, ginger root, two-thirds of a bottle of extra-hot hot sauce, on whose label was a wide-eyed cartoon coyote with the top of its head blown off. The combination was so strong that Po couldn’t stand over it without tearing up, but the rusalki remained unperturbed. When their semi-translucent skin began to smoke, they scratched at it absentmindedly, peeling it away in long strips. All the while, they kept chatting among themselves in a slang-filled Russian Po couldn’t understand. She picked up one word every few sentences: “Molting season.” “Hopeless.” “Granddaughter.” “Red.”
Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. With a meat tenderizer in one hand, she dove the other into the pot and grabbed the first rusalka she could: a smallish one with a feathered tail the color of an oil spill. Then she slapped her on the counter, raised the meat tenderizer, and brought it down—
—onto the speckled faux marble, which cracked under the impact. In the time it had taken Po to swing, the rusalka had squirmed and slipped, wriggled and writhed out of her grip and was now manically thrashing her way back toward the pot. As she launched herself up the metal side, the tip of her tail flopped onto the hot burner and she let out a hollow yowl. Safely inside the pot, she was immediately swarmed by her sisters, who formed a protective circle around her and glared accusingly up at Po. At their center, the injured rusalka mewed piteously, but in her milky white eyes Po detected a snide satisfaction.
A drop of red hit the countertop. Po looked down to find the rusalka had taken a chunk out of the webbing between her pointer finger and thumb.
“Durachka,” a different rusalka hissed up at her. “Your tricks have been amusing, but we grow tired. Mind you do it again, and we’ll take hold of you and pull you in.”
The day before the potluck, resigned to her sorry fate, Po went to the supermarket and bought four cans of low-sodium Russian meatball soup, plus a cheap bottle of vodka with a Russian flag on the front and the name written in tall letters in English. When she got home, she set them on the kitchen table, slumped down, and dropped her head into her hands.
Every time she’d made one of the soups, she’d tried to imagine how her grandmother would have done it—had done it, miles away and years ago. Would she have wiped the pelmeni flour onto her neatly pressed slacks? Would she have pulled a spoonful out of the pot and pursed her bright magenta lips, blowing softly to cool it? Would she have put it on simmer to keep it warm for her friends, her admirers, who were always coming over, who would take trains and planes to get a taste of Agrafena Sergeevna’s famous soup? Her friends and admirers, who had known her far better than her own granddaughter.
Po thought back on the failed soups of the past few weeks: sweet cabbage soup, rassolnik, okroshka, borscht. And she thought of her grandmother too, how all the memories she had of her were murky, clouded by time or the changing of hands—or worse, made-up. An entire life diluted. Po felt her grandmother’s once-mighty presence slipping through her fingers. How very sick she was of soup. Now, more than anything, she wished for something solid.
Po lifted her head and her gaze returned to the cans of soup on the table. Slowly, she stood, then she took the cans one by one and flung them down onto the checkerboard tile. One took a dent right in the middle and doubled over, as if bowing in prayer. Another ricocheted onto the plush darkness of the neighboring living room carpet. Another miraculously survived the attack unscathed. The fourth can landed on the corner of its lid and sprayed a stream of clear broth onto the wall. Po sank back into a chair, breathing heavily, surveying the damage.
Suddenly, a cacophony of metal erupted from the cupboard left of the stove, like the sound of cymbals in a marching band finale.
“Polina!” a small voice croaked from behind the cupboard door. Po was short for Polina Mikhailovna, daughter of Mikhail Yurivich and Elena Timofeevna. Even on days she didn’t feel very Russian, her name wouldn’t let her forget.
Po approached the cupboard.
“Polina!” the voice sounded again.
She tentatively opened the door. Inside was a jumble of pots and pans, their handles sticking out at odd angles, the smallest one a saucepan, no more than five inches in diameter, precariously balanced on top of the pile. Within it sat an unhappy-looking rusalka, her tail tucked into her chest.
Po crouched down and delicately extracted the saucepan from the heap. The rusalka clawed at her tiny throat, and Po noticed for the first time the set of red-lined gills on each side of that graceful neck, now frantically opening and closing. She brought the pot up to the faucet and filled it halfway with room-temperature water before setting it down on the counter.
“This is a first,” she addressed the rusalka, hands on her hips. “I wasn’t even cooking. How did I manage to mess up this time?”
The rusalka looked sheepishly in any direction but Po’s, twirling her fingers through her blonde-green hair. Maybe it was the light—in the window, the full moon loomed bigger than Po had ever seen it—but the strange creature looked different somehow. Sweet-faced. Almost beautiful.
“Well?” Po asked, losing patience. “Go ahead. You’ve never held back before.”
The rusalka dropped her hands, the hard line of her jaw softening as she met Po’s gaze. “Polina,” she said finally. “You could have asked us. We would have told you.”
Po said nothing, confused.
“About your babushka,” the rusalka explained.
Po felt her face grow hot. “How would you know anything about her? You’re just a bunch of…what are you, anyway? Wannabe food critics? Going to pan me in the Globe?”
The rusalka sighed. “We know because we were there, malysh. In Rostov-on-Don. In her kitchen. Which was really quite small and dark, as I remember. It’s much nicer here.” She smiled gently up at Po, who narrowed her eyes in response.
“We know,” the rusalka continued, “because she once made mistakes with her recipes too. How do you think they eventually became her recipes? Oh, she was a disaster in the beginning! Sugar instead of salt, lazy chopping technique, the meat raw while the vegetables were mush. Once, she would have sliced her finger clean off had Marina not sprung up so quickly to save her.”
“The little one. With the singed tail.”
Po nodded, newly embarrassed.
“Anyway, you’re a lot like her. We all think so. Totally impossible, don’t get me wrong.” The rusalka paused. “But also impossibly persistent.”
At this, Po had to choke back a sob.
“So you thought all you were getting was the recipes, huh?” The rusalka gestured toward the book where it sat on the opposite counter. “Well, Agrafena’s recipes come with, let’s call them, a few accessories.”
Po felt something spark within her. “Can you call them?” she asked, as the rusalka’s tail swished playfully through the empty water. “I’ll get the stuff from the pantry.”
So the hours passed on the night before the potluck, until the night before became the day of, and the kitchen’s artificial light was pushed out by the morning sun. Po worked steadily alongside the rusalki, who were harsh as ever, but shrewd, she realized, and whose brand of love was simply sharper than she was used to, and at times harder to swallow. It was an acquired taste, to be sure, and one she knew she had finally acquired, as she added the onions and fat cubes of perch to the ukha: the final recipe in the book, traditional fisherman’s soup. The onions made Po cry, and the peppercorns made Marina sneeze, and between the heckling was the occasional blissful silence or the humming of an old Rostov song Po could almost remember.
The ukha she would bring to the potluck wouldn’t be perfect. Maybe Molly and her other friends would like it, or maybe they wouldn’t. What mattered was that it would be hers. And not only hers. It would belong to her, and to Agrafena, and to all of them. To her father, to Rostov, to Boston, to the vast oceans, to the driven snow.
And even though, weeks ago, the rusalki had scoffed at the thought of eating Po’s cooking, when she came back to the stove after having her back turned, she swore one of the perch cubes was missing a bite.
© Copyright Kristina Ten
Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer with work in Lightspeed, Black Static, Weird Horror, AE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop and a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.
Read the Rest of the May Issue
- An Interview with the Mermaid on Display at the National Aquarium by B. Sharise Moore
- Kanaka Mer by AJ Hartson
- Fisherman’s Soup by Kristina Ten
- Mermaid Eating by Chlo’e Camonayan
- Walk on Water by Yvette R. Murray
- NB, Steampunk Mer by AJ Hartson
- How to Bind a Sailor’s Heart by Jelena Dunato
- Pen and Ink Mer by Liz Aguilar
- Sirens of the South by Gee Pascal
- Be Brave by Caitlin Cheowanich
- The Donkey and the Mermaid by Panchita Otaño
- Fat Mermaid in: Wardrobe Malfunction by Grace Vibbert and Marie Vibbert
- Sinking, Singing by Gwynne Garfinkle
- Goth Mer #1 by Che Gilson
- Operating from a Space of Truth: An Interview with Amy L. Bernstein and Michelle D. Smith by Julia Rios
- The Incident at Veniaminov by Mathilda Zeller
- Submissions Report by Julia Rios
- Goth Mer #2 by Che Gilson
- Mer-Maid and Mer-Butler by Ivor Healy