by Jordan Kurella
I lost Lynne to the Seine. That’s what I told authorities and the doctors and my friends twenty years ago after she disappeared, “I lost her.” It was all I could say, after they all lay their hands on my slumped shoulder, looked me in the eyes and said, “She is gone, chérie. She lost herself. It is not your fault. It is time you lost her too.”
So, I lost Lynne to the Seine, but that isn’t the truth and I know it. The truth is that we were kissing under a streetlamp on La Rive Gauche twenty years ago. We were kissing and I had my fingers tangled in her hair that smelled like lilies and ashes. I could taste that night’s tiramisu on her tongue and the just flicked cigarette on her breath.
But just as she pulled away, and before she could take my face in her outstretched hands, she was snatched away from me. By a tall woman in a white coat with silver rings on each of her fingers. Snatched away and taken into the dark waters of the Seine, while still reaching for me. The tall woman’s coat became silver fishtails, her silver rings stretched into webbing.
Those fishtails wrapped around my Lynne, the way my own legs would wrap around her in sleep, in not-sleep. The strange woman dragged her down, down into the darkness, and I watched, hand over my open mouth as Lynne’s mouth opened. As her hands reached for me, her eyes wide, the whites bright in the murk.
What did she yell down there in the deep? My imagination, my hope, says it was, “Victoria!” It won’t let me have it any other way. My name, screamed in that way, echoes through nightmares.
Percy likes his tea like a good Englishman should, with milk and two sugars. So now I have it this way, because I don’t have the heart to tell him that I like it black and mean, like an American. Every morning, he brings me my tea in the bath where I soak in jasmine bubbles up to my chin and we talk as if we haven’t been talking for ten years.
“Bad night?” he asks with concern, even though he knows I had a bad night.
“Nightmares,” I confirm, setting us both to nodding and sighing and smiling small English smiles where neither of us knows what to do. I know he felt me kicking in the bed last night. I know he woke up and said, “Victoria, shh. Shh.” And I curled up in his arms where I’d learned it was safe.
“Yes,” I say. “Again.”
What I don’t say is, Lynne, again.
Because he doesn’t like talking about Lynne. He doesn’t like remembering my time in France with her, or anything about her. Doesn’t like me mentioning how we lived, how we kissed, or particularly how she disappeared. “Oh, you know Victoria,” he would say at parties where everyone wore silly hats to commemorate some holiday or another. “She had a wild past.”
“What he means to say is, I’m bisexual,” I replied, every time.
“She’s from Paris,” was his each and every answer.
Which is a lie, cause I’m actually from Minnesota.
“Right,” he says now, as he always says. “A kiss should make it better. I should know, I’m a doctor.”
We both smile as he places his kiss right between my eyes, while his undone tie splashes into the water as it always does, while he mis-buttons the top two buttons of his shirt, while his nametag hangs askew on his pocket. Announcing him crookedly as: Dr. Percy Mantival, Psychologist, London Hospital. Percy is a man who presents himself as a disheveled mess, but everything about him is calculated: every word, every gesture, every quiet shush.
All crooked in effect.
His kiss lingers, as it always does, washing away the lines trying to etch themselves between my eyebrows. The lines’ve made good progress. But Percy does his best every morning to hold them back.
When we actually kiss goodbye, Percy is sweet, like saccharine. He prefers berry scones and three sugars in his tea and anything with chocolate. Comedies to drama. Action comedies most of all. Percy says he loves to laugh. Lynne actually did, but it’s easy to forget that sometimes. It’s easy to forget so much sometimes.
“Best be off,” he says, tying his half-soaked tie quickly.
“You’ll be late otherwise.”
“I’m always late,” he says. “It’s my aesthetic.”
He dashes off into the wilds of the West Sussex commute and I stay inside as the smell of sugar hits my teeth before the reality of it can rot them. The smell halts me, as it has a habit of doing, causing me to simply hold the cup and stare out at the lone tree in the upstairs tenants’ garden. It’s budding.
Two months after Lynne was taken from me, I was in our shared St. Cloud flat, hardly living off of Gitanes and Nutella (a diet she would’ve been proud of), when I found one of her old poetry notebooks on the floor.
I leafed through it, about to cry. Again.
Instead, I stayed up all night. Stayed up until the dawn crept through the filthy windows and the traffic sounded the start of a new day. I didn’t cry, because I was still stuck in yesterday’s tears, stuck weeks and weeks of grief. Reliving that time in this notebook, in its poetry, in its drawings.
Littered all over pages of this tiny notebook were crude sketches of those same two tailed mermaids. Ones that looked exactly like the silver-tailed woman who took Lynne away. Who drowned her? Looked exactly like the mermaid in the Starbucks logo: the one that drowns everything.
Reading through Lynne’s poetry, I learned what she was, that silver-tailed woman. And what Lynne found so enchanting about her. About how this creature lived at the bottom of cold, cold waters, lived at the edge of men’s curiosity. Lived with hungering need for the most beguiling and enchanting among all of us.
Among women, Lynne was always the most beguiling and enchanting. She didn’t have to make an effort, she just was. Apparently, I was not the only one who saw her that way. In the poems, Lynne wrote of a need for cold, cold water. A need for escape. In what she wrote it was clear she was already far away from me. Reaching for a way out. For a silver-tailed woman.
I was too concrete a thing to see this. Unmovable like stones, she used to say.
Lynne was fluid, a river of thoughts and gestures and words. It’s what I found so enchanting about her: she was a woman I could neither navigate nor hold down. And that is exactly what the silver-tailed creature found so perfect about her.
And so imperfect about me.
She was a monster, was monstrous, this silver-tailed creature (woman?). Yet we had commonalities. Like me, she had captured Lynne’s attention from all the others, kept Lynne’s eyes wandering only to her. She, this monster, was curious and frivolous and daring. But unlike me, she was unpredictable. Reckless.
Now, I wanted to become unpredictable. Reckless.
I wanted to become monstrous; wanted to become anything else, to be with Lynne. While my student visa was expiring, and while I was meant to go back to Minnesota, I decided to remain in France. To study, to stop this loneliness, this heartache, this squalor of a life.
Why? Recklessness. Unpredictability.
To become a mélusine: a silver-tailed woman.
With the memory of Lynne still here, the mystery of her still here, I spent a few weeks of grueling paperwork and embarrassing groveling to extend my student visa. I was going to do further study at Université de Paris Diderot. Expertise? French Folklore, and its foundation in French Identity. To study the mélusines, anything to find meaning in this lost life; anything to help define it. And I did define it, very well. Too well.
The American School in London gets an eerie quiet once the students have left for the day, leaving me alone to bend over my laptop and grade their work. Now, while I turn accent aigus into accent graves with quiet “nons” in the margins, I am interrupted by a familiar scent of just-smoked-cigarettes and rancid Chanel No.5.
“You are in here all alone, as usual,” Marie-Laure says in French, walking in and falling into a duct-taped armchair with everyday ease. “So predictable and dependable, like a wristwatch. Ticking and tocking.”
I smile and close my laptop, leaning back in my own (less comfortable, yet still duct-taped) desk chair. We are decades old friends, Marie-Laure and I, but not the sort to be confused as sisters, as so many closest friends are.
Marie-Laure’s hair is thick and white-blonde with deep grey roots. She is nearly as tall as the door and thin as a skeleton. She looks like Madonna and Twiggy had an affair with two and a half yardsticks. I am her opposite, short and stocky with frizzy brown curls that can’t be tamed in Greater London’s humidity and pollution. We both favor the same fashions though. Wearing clothes that look like water or wind.
Marie-Laure still throws parties full of neon cocktails and rainbow tiered cakes once a month. I spend my weekends going to Tesco to stock up on bulk groceries and binging Netflix with Percy who brings me charcuterie boards and sometimes feeds me by hand. All the while I dream about cyan cocktails and six tiers of cake.
But parties aren’t why Marie-Laure’s here. We have to snag every second together that we can. So, four-thirty teatime. Every weekday.
I turn on the electric kettle and it’s begun. We each cross our legs ankle to knee so that our palazzo pants hang down like running water. However, it’s Marie-Laure who leans toward me first, as she always does.
“Percy working late tonight?”
“Yes, but so am I.”
Marie-Laure blows her hair out of her face. “What’s he making for your dinner? Another casserole? A meatloaf? Or some other hideous American dish for you to chew on nostalgia and him to relish his in his sainthood?”
“It’s not like that,” I say, brushing my own hair out of my face.
“Psssh,” she says. “Tell me something else. Something interesting.”
“It’s the anniversary of Lynne’s disappearance this weekend?” I say. “I was thinking of doing something for it? You and I should go out to dinner maybe? Or, I dunno. Haven’t decided yet.”
“How could I forget,” Marie-Laure says, with the all the drama of a high school thespian. “How silly of me.” She grins and stands up as the kettle clicks off. “You and I went there ten years ago to commemorate. Lovely time, but too quiet. A decade passes so quickly, my god. Now, this new anniversary must be bigger, better, larger. So, I have an idea for what to do. Two ideas. First one, drop Percy Buzzkill into the Thames. Be rid of him.”
“Marie-Laure!” I turn around in the chair so fast it tips. “How dare!”
“I always dare,” she says, fixing our tea, black and mean. “But the second idea is the better one for you; the real idea.”
She hands me my mug and sits down in the armchair again, holding her mug in the tips of her fingers. She licks her lips, and I am on tiptoes, my teeth grit, eyes so wide they’re begging me to blink.
“If Dr. Buzzkill, Percy, refuses to believe in Lynne, then you simply go to Paris without him. Victoria, he does not deserve to see this part of you. Or any, truly. My opinion.”
I blink twice and hard, like fish in cartoons.
“He believes in me,” I say.
“No he doesn’t,” Marie-Laure says. “He erases the parts of you he does not like. He does not believe in your nightmares, he does not believe in your past.” She tilts her head to the side and sighs. “Victoria, it is written all over your face. You miss her, you need her. Go to Paris, make amends.”
I nod, sighing heavily myself and turning to open my laptop.
“I will,” I say. “I’ll get a ticket for tomorrow. Make a hotel reservation.”
“Good, good,” she says. “And I’ll throw Dr. Buzzkill in the Thames before arriving in Paris myself.”
“Don’t do that!” I say.
“No promises,” Marie-Laure says, and then adds an overemphasized wink.
As she leans back in that poor armchair to enjoy her tea, I make sure not to buy not one, but two tickets. One for me, and one for Percy.
At the door to the West Sussex flat, I have to ask the real questions.
Does Percy actually love me? I ask as I turn the key. I do this every weekday evening. Every Sunday on the way back from Tesco.
Really and truly? Like in the movies?
These are the things I tell myself as I hang my hat and scarf by the door, as I take off my shoes at the bench. I tell myself that he brings me tea in the bath every morning. Yes, he gets it wrong, but it’s become a joke at this point. One we both laugh at: that Percy gets things wrong, and it is my job to find them adorable. He dotes on me. Especially when I’m cold, when his feet touch mine (that are lately cold as ice), and he piles on the blankets and duvets so high I that can no longer see the television.
“There,” he says, patting the blanket fort he’s built out of me. “Much better.”
He cooks dinner every evening, like he is tonight, likely headphones on and dancing at the stove to a band I’ve grown to love, too. He is a good dancer, always has been. Lynne was a good dancer too. Yet another similarity between them: the dancing, the sweetness, even the way they kiss are similar.
But this is now. This is now where I have to tell Percy about Paris, and the why of it. Lynne, and the anniversary. I need to say it; have to say it. My hands clench and unclench at my sides as I shuffle toward him, following the sounds and smells of lasagna cooking. The shuffle, shuffle step of his dancing.
“Bury me in mozzarella,” I say, entering the kitchen.
He lowers his headphones and sweeps me up in his dancing until the oven screams for his attention. While he busies himself cutting the food into oversized portions, I busy myself with the table, wine, and all of that. Once we’re seated, but before either of us have taken a bite, I raise my glass to him.
“I made plans this weekend. Cheers.”
“Cheers,” he says, clinking my glass. “You made plans? Victoria, what would happen if I’d already made plans?”
“I think you’ll like these plans,” I say.
“Let me finish,” I say. “I bought tickets to Paris for tomorrow, made hotel reservations.”
Percy halts with surprise, fork poised over far too much cheese. “All on your own? To Paris? Tomorrow? I’m so proud of you!”
I beam back at him, bathing in his affection.
“I’ll take care of packing and arranging the transport to St. Pancras, no need to worry your head anymore. You’ve done enough. Simply finish your dinner, and rest for the remainder of the evening. You deserve it, Victoria, darling girl.”
There’s a slight sting in my pride as I bite into my lasagna and the ricotta and soy crumble melts along with all my resolve. The resolve to tell him we’re going there for Lynne, not him. That we’re going for me to reconcile Lynne’s disappearance; to reconcile that I never really could reconcile it, no matter how hard I tried. And why?
Because of Percy. Because of him.
Even though I researched and searched for the mélusine that took Lynne for years, and then searched for mélusines for years even after that, it took too long to find what I was looking for. I gave up after a time, after I found a teaching job in London, and then found Percy. And I was happy for a while, and he’s happy still. Eleven years later.
Yet we’re going back. ‘Cause one always has to go back to go forward.
He starts making a packing list on his phone and also too many plans for thirty-six hours, and I eat the rest of my lasagna. Drowning in my own deception and four layers of cheese. While he goes over his itinerary (Louvre, Sainte Chappelle, the Champs-Élysées, Eiffel Tower, and so on), I stare out at the tree in the upstairs tenants’ garden.
Percy arrives in the bath the next morning with a cup of tea set down so fast that it splashes milk and sugar and Tetley’s into the bubbles with me. He checks his watch with a fury known only to a man on holiday.
“Are you ready to go?” he asks. “Train leaves in four hours.”
And the day went by in a flurry of rushing and grooming and waiting, and, of course, being late. Because, Dr. Percy Mantival, Perpetually Late, is not only an aesthetic, but an ethos. We arrive at the hotel after dark, with me dousing my foul spirits in hotel coffee and Percy shutting himself in the bathroom with his razor and too much running water.
I drink the predictably terrible coffee and change down to underclothes while Percy asks me questions over the rumble of the tap: “Are you hungry?” I answer, No. “Fancy cocktails at the bar?” I answer, No, again. “Well then, fancy a walk along the Seine?”
Falling onto the bed, I run my hands over my bare knees. Yes. This was what I wanted, the walk along the Seine. And I wanted it to be Percy’s idea, for him to realize the reason I came here was to reconcile the anniversary of Lynne’s disappearance. For him to commemorate it, all of his own volition.
After all, Percy never believed in Lynne, in our relationship, in her disappearance. Not because of my love of women. But because of his love of science, of psychology. When I told him about it, he put a hand on my cheek and said, “Victoria, it’s alright. It’s alright. What you saw wasn’t real. It was a hallucination. But you’re okay now. You’re safe now, with me.”
He kept me safe ever since. Too safe. Unsafe.
But I know what I saw; know what I researched. It was real, it wasn’t some intangible hallucination. I’m not, as they say, crazy. As so many counselors and psychiatrists assured me that I wasn’t. That night, when Lynne disappeared: I still smell, taste, feel her in my hands.
In my nightmares.
It wasn’t a suicide, as the authorities said, as my doctors told me. There’s too much other evidence: so many women disappeared similarly over the years. And then the attacks stopped a little over a decade ago. Also? The mélusine is a creature so real that she ended up on every Starbucks across the entire fucking world. And yet, I’m the one who’s wrong. I’m the one who Percy simply rests his hand on and silences whenever I bring Lynne up.
But I’ve paused too long in answering, Percy’s popped his head out the door.
“I’d love to,” I say. Quickly, and then I try to smile.
“You alright?” He sits next to me on the bed. He brushes my hair away from my face, but it bounces back. It always does. “You need anything?”
“No, only a little air.”
“I’ll be ready in two shakes. Two.”
I watch him pull on his shirt over his damp skin, fiddling with the buttons in his hurry. I go over to help him, doing up his buttons with my own cold fingers. He takes them in his hands to warm them.
“Do you need a coat?”
“No,” I say. “It’s a warm enough night.”
He fetches one anyway. My dingy grey winter one, pilled and with a lining so ripped that the pockets are no longer pockets. It’s far too big on me, despite copious hemming and tailoring. After all, it was once Marie-Laure’s. I always wanted to be Marie-Laure, down to the point where I took her hand me downs.
However, try as I might, I had yet to become Marie-Laure.
Lynne and I were dyeing our hair one evening (black, from kits), and I was stroking cheap plastic gloves over her golden roots as she exhaled smoke at herself in the mirror. Both of us were naked to the waist, black dye splattered all over our pale white torsos. My own hair wrapped up in a black rope on top of my head, secured with a holey shower cap.
“What do you want on your tombstone?” she asked. “What’s the word for that?”
“Epitaph,” I said, smoothing the dye out so it was even.
“That’s it. What do you want it to say?”
“Dunno,” I said. “I’m not that interesting.”
She turned around, whipping dye all over the tile counter and mirror. All over my stomach and chest. “Bullshit.” She was smirking as she passed me her cigarette. “I know what it’ll say: Victoria Martin. Beloved Hottie of Paris and Beyond.”
“You ass,” I said, and grinned. She grinned back, snatching for the cigarette between my fingers, but I was too fast for her. Taking one final drag before stubbing it out in a sliver of soap. “Now my turn to do yours. Lynne Ashford. Too Pretty, Had To Die.”
“Nice,” Lynne said, licking her lips while wrapping her hair up in a rope like mine and snapping a shower cap over the lot. “You done?”
“Good,” she said.
And she grabbed my face in dye-stained fingers and kissed me one last time in our apartment. Kissed me and more. The next day she disappeared. And I’ve been following her ghost ever since. Ever since.
What is a mélusine really? A beguiling creature, an unforgettable creature. A creature that captures the hearts not only of the fey creature herself, but of all creatures, otherworldly and human alike. I want to be beguiling and unforgettable.
If only just once.
I slip on a set of silver rings and Marie-Laure’s old coat. I style my hair in the tiny bathroom while Percy makes a cup of tea. He helps me zip up a dress he chose for the occasion. A dress he loves. A promise for later, I told him. Or did he hope that when he packed it?
We leave the hotel far too late for any sort of bar crowds, and far too early for last call. Our heels click clack against the pavement steps to the Seine, my dress now smelling like murk and lilies. Percy takes my one hand in both of his. To warm it, he says. You’re always so cold, he’s been saying lately.
His grip, however, is gentle. He’s afraid he might break me, as if I am the fragile thing between us. But Percy is the fragile one: his belief structure will break under the slightest haunting, under the slightest glimpse of the surreal, of the other-real. Of reality. His breathing is purposeful as he glances constantly behind us in the fading lamplight.
He is trying to keep calm.
I feel him turn and crane his neck, as I keep my gaze forward. Always forward. As I listen to the click clack click of our footsteps, answered by the swish lap swash of the Seine against the embankment. We are both waiting for what I have been anticipating, both the day Lynne was taken, the day Marie-Laure and I came here ten years ago, and every nightmare on La Rive Gauche since.
A reply: another set of footsteps.
We are the only two human souls here, the lamplight only shining so far, and we are so far from it. Percy’s thin and clean-shaven face is cast into shadows, his normal thinness made gaunt. He turns to me, and I clutch my fist in my jacket pocket, feeling my rings strengthening my resolve.
Percy is the monster, has always been: keeping me under blankets, keeping me fed and protected from what I am, what I wanted. Keeping me from my friends and my dreams. Telling me what was real wasn’t. That is what monstrousness is.
What is approaching is not.
What is approaching is a tall, thin woman. Too tall, too thin. Silver rings glinting in the hint of lamplight. Her hair is thick and light, but dark at the roots. She stands with all the authority that she belongs here, in clothing that drips off of her like water. I know where she got those clothes, the pants were thirty-nine quid at Marks & Spencer.
It is, of course, Marie-Laure.
“Victoria,” she says. “I expected you, but not Dr. Buzzkill. Does this man follow you everywhere?”
I try to step out and beside Percy, but his grip around my hand tightens, causing my rings to pinch my fingers. He’s scared. I didn’t tell him about this, about the anniversary. While I expected Marie-Laure, and while I was waiting for her, I thought she’d be more amenable to a last goodbye. One last glimpse of proof.
One last chance to prove Dr. Percy Buzzkill wrong.
“I’ll answer this, Victoria,” Percy says, still keeping me behind him. He takes on his London Hospital posture. Straight back, chin up, serious, yet pitying voice. “I came along, Marie-Laure, because Victoria asked me to come along on holiday. It seems you are the uninvited guest here. Seems you followed us.”
Marie-Laure laughs in that way she does when she knows she’s fully right: looking off to the side, her laugh loud and smoker-guttural. It’s a beat before she slowly rolls her attention back to Percy, and to me.
“Oh, but you are wrong, you know Dr. Buzzkill. You are wrong. It is you who are uninvited. It is you who are unwanted.”
I wrench my hand free of Percy’s grip and step beside him. I raise my voice and, with my hands as fists I am transformed with the strength to speak. Finally speak.
“I am the one who made these decisions, all of them,” I say. “Yes, it was Marie-Laure’s suggestion. Yes, I bought an extra ticket for you, Percy. Yes. But I was the one who decided. I decided because I wanted you to see. I wanted you to see, for real, what is actually real.”
Percy reaches his hand toward my face and for the first time in over a decade, I step out of his reach. His hand hesitates mid-air, causing a pause before he speaks. He’s considering his next words carefully, like he used to consider me carefully.
“See. See what? Victoria?”
Marie-Laure closes the space between us and takes my hand, also coated in silver rings like mine. They match. We match. The two of us bought them together, five quid each on Etsy. As she takes my hand, we lace our fingers together, best friend style.
“I wanted you to see that Lynne truly did disappear.” I’m trying to talk but I’m also trying not to cry while squeezing Marie-Laure’s hand so hard, my rings pinch my fingers again. “To see that I wasn’t lying, or hallucinating, or crazy. That I was never one of your patients, or some sort of pet girlfriend science project.”
“Victoria?” Percy says. His confusion is so real it’s written in the way his hands shake, in the way his eyes look us both over like we’ve broken some fundamental law. “Victoria, wait.”
“Goodbye, Dr. Buzzkill,” Marie-Laure says.
But I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I wipe my face on my dingy grey coat, revealing the lost white of it beneath. This was once the white coat. The coat Marie-Laure took Lynne in, these silver rings I now wear to match hers from that day. I had always wanted to be like Marie-Laure, and she encouraged it.
She encouraged so well.
“Victoria, you don’t have to do this.”
“I do,” I say. “Goodbye, Percy.”
He doesn’t move, doesn’t even try to stop us. Does that hurt still?
Some. A little. Do I still love him?
That is the question as Marie-Laure and I dive into the water, as our legs become silver fishtails, and our rings become webs. I watch as Percy screams for me, his mouth open wide as my mouth opens wide, as my lungs adapt to the black water.
I imagine he screams my name. As I once imagined Lynne did, all those years ago. But I was unmovable then, and could not love a fluid thing. Someone already caught and captured by a mélusine: someone found so beguiling, otherworldly, perfect that she is beyond our understanding. I tried to love Lynne, who was already taken. So I, too, had to change. I had to become fluid, changing, beguiling.
Only a fluid thing can escape the unmovable, as Percy is unmovable. He is stone, someone who tried to map me, chart me, hold me down. Now he is a piece of history. I had to learn that. I had to learn how to escape that.
A mélusine must become fluid, so that she may seep from beneath the stones.
© Copyright Jordan Kurella
Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Cairo and Chicago). In their past lives, they were a barista, radio DJ, and social worker. Their work has been featured in Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons.