Tor.com is thrilled to reprint “Undine Love” by Kathleen Jennings, which first appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in 2011.
In the words of the author:
“Undine Love” started as a symptom of reading Gothic fiction (as in, actual Gothic fiction written in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with people being dragged off to hell and screaming “Wertrold, Wertrold, save me!” and wrestling anacondas in Ceylon, in case you ever wondered what Jane Austen’s characters were reading). I began writing a story in suitably anguished prose, then wondered whether (as an exercise) it would work if updated from wuthering medievalish riverbanks to a modern beachhouse. It worked, but it felt rather sandy and unpleasant, so I shifted the story to something like the Lockyer Valley, where my parents live now and where the side roads plunge into deep romantic creek-valleys, and set it at a farmhouse and a bed-and-breakfast above a little river.
After “Undine Love” was first published, a few people asked if I’d write more about Tori and the Damsons and their world. It was an idea I played with now and then, in between other projects and hinted at in other stories, without ever quite naming the connection. But as I wrote Flyaway, set in the more remote areas of (something like) Queensland, I realised it had echoes (though considerably more Gothic) of the concerns that drift below the surface of “Undine Love” and that, indeed, some cobweb Damson relations would be involved in the events of Bettina Scott’s life…
I stood on the front step of Apple Orchard Cottage and watched the worn white sedan pull up the drive under the jacaranda trees. When Jack Albury got out of it, I was surprised. He was near my age, but sleek and urbane. He looked like he ought to have arrived in something finned and red, in a shower of gravel with a slim, sunglassed beauty in the seat beside him. He seemed apologetic, until I recognised the expression in his eyes as tiredness.
“Welcome to Apple Orchard Cottage, Mr Albury,” I said brightly. “I’m Tori Damson, your landlady, and I hope you enjoy your stay.” I held out the key and, when he took it, proffered the gift basket. This was part of the Apple Orchard Cottage experience but Jack Albury was very much alone, and I wondered if the champagne had been a good idea. Since I took over the cottage, most of the guests had been couples celebrating anniversaries—but perhaps he was still expecting someone.
“Thank you,” said Jack, and hesitated. He looked, if anything, a little lost.
“I’ve set the cottage in order,” I said, beginning to flounder, “And if you need anything at all, my house is at the top of the hill.”
“Thank you, Ms Damson,” he said gravely, and I smiled and left. When I glanced back, he was fiddling with the keys and seemed to be studying the doorstep. When I looked back again, from halfway up the path between the apple trees, he had gone inside and closed the door.
Apple Orchard Cottage stood on the crest of a very small hill above a bend in the narrow river. The gnarled and neglected apple orchard ran up a larger hill behind the cottage. At the crest of that hill, further from the water but with a fine view of the blue haze of eucalypt forests beyond, was the homestead.
When I bought the isolated farm the bed-and-breakfast had been the only profitable aspect. I kept the cottage operating for my own pleasure, although it wasn’t a part of my family business. The cottage had far more charm than my rambling warren of a homestead. I liked prettying it up and arranging the leaflets from local attractions (water-skiing on the dam, a winery, the local fruit festival) and filling vases with wildflowers, but I was glad the guests kept to themselves. I wasn’t very gifted with people.
Jack Albury surprised me again by coming to my house that afternoon. I was about to go on my rounds, and then drive up to the dam—my father had made a suggestion about the peculiar tracks I had seen there last time and I wanted to try it out. I suspected the tracks were connected to the regular disappearances of watches and spare change left on picnic blankets. Jack found me sitting on the lowest step, haversack slung over my shoulder, pulling my boots on.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” I answered, and stood up. He looked me up and down, and at first I thought it was because I had changed from my floral sundress into work clothes and a hat.
He took a breath, paused, then said, “Are those bagpipes?”
I looked down at the pipes sticking out of the haversack. “Yes,” I said, because sometimes honesty is the best policy, and because I was mesmerised by his perfect hair.
“Oh,” said Jack. “And that, I take it, is a dog?”
Bartok, who looks like a cross between a pig and an armchair, sat looking at Jack with an approximation of keen intelligence. “More or less,” I said, and then remembered that Jack was a paying guest and I was the landlady. I put down the bagpipes and pulled my hat off. “What can I do for you, Mr Albury?”
“Eggs,” he said. “Mrs—the last owner—used to sell me eggs. I didn’t realise, or I would have…” his voice trailed off. “And sugar.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yes, of course. Absolutely.” I kicked my boots off again and ran upstairs.
“But if you’re busy…” said Jack.
“No, no,” I called over my shoulder. “Just—um—chores! Come inside and take what you need.”
Jack followed me up the stairs, carefully picking his way between the pots of geraniums that had come with the farm.
I backed out of the refrigerator with eggs in one hand and the sugar bowl in the other. I kept the sugar in the refrigerator because of ants, but Jack didn’t comment on that.
“Chores with bagpipes?” he said, inevitably, from the kitchen door.
“Yes,” I said. “The, um, cows find it very soothing. And don’t worry—I’ll be far enough away that the sound won’t bother you.”
I put the eggs and sugar bowl in his hands. Jack was looking around at the books on the kitchen table and in the cabinets. I’d forgotten about them—I’m supposed to keep work secret but I have no gift for subtlety.
“Do you want a container?” I asked, to distract him.
“Yes please,” he said, and frowned at the tattered paperback on the stovetop. It was titled, in lurid, dripping fonts, A SCREAM AT MIDNIGHT: Legends of the Valley.
“Cryptozoology,” I reassured him. “Local legends. Just a hobby. I’m still unpacking.”
“Oh,” said Jack, and then, after I gave him an ice-cream container to put everything in, “Any ghost stories?”
I looked closely at him to see if he was joking, but mostly he just looked tired and earnest. “Not in the kitchen,” I said, shepherding him out and into the living room, “but there are a few shelves of Gothic stuff out here. You’re welcome to borrow some, if you want?”
He did—apparently stylish hair and a silk tie can belong to a melancholy reader. The ghost stories were between the cookbooks and the self-sufficiency handbooks, and since he didn’t volunteer a preference I selected two with a high ratio of spine-chill to garish cover art. “Enjoy,” I said. As we went down the stairs to where Bartok sat, still grinning resolutely at the air, I asked, with a determined effort at normal conversation, “So, what do you do?”
“I work,” he said, and lifted the hand with the books in a wave before going back through the orchard. As I set out with Bartok I revised my opinion of Jack Albury again: good-looking, privileged and stand-offish.
I concentrated on the boundaries and tracks, looking for tell-tale markings of unwanted pests and generally making my presence felt, which my parents always said was half the work.
It occurred to me that Jack’s parting comment might not have been dismissive. It had sounded, if I considered the tone of his voice, bleakly true—as if life was just work, and this week was the one time he got to be Jack Albury.
Bartok found a newly uninhabited ant-hill and as he recovered from his hysteria I realised that Jack had, from what he said, been to Apple Orchard Cottage before, and that his was one of the few bookings that had come with the property. I wondered if the reason he worked was just to get away to the cottage. I was spinning a little story in my head of the hermitic tendencies of a young professional and how my gentle domesticity would draw him out of himself, when Bartok and I came to the top of a ridge and saw a distant glimpse of the dam wall. I swore as strongly as I could.
“Crap!” I said. “Oh, crap! Bartok!” Bartok sat and scratched himself and looked at me. “Jack Albury, Bartok!” I said. “What have I done?” I turned and ran back, the bagpipes rattling across my back, and Bartok lolloping around my legs. Once he stopped dead in front of me, staring at a piece of bark, but I leapt over him and kept running. I burned with humiliation. I was terrible with people—that was why my family had been happy for me to set up my district in the middle of nowhere. Introduced species were one thing—I could wrangle them like no-one’s business, mostly—but actual humans with feelings shouldn’t be let near me.
When we came to a view of Apple Orchard Cottage, I stopped to catch my breath. A trickle of blue smoke drifted from the chimney, and Jack Albury was walking in the reeds along the bank of the river. “Crap,” I said again to myself and the stitch in my side. He hadn’t driven off, but I didn’t know if that was a relief. I limped back to the house.
The box of papers that came with the property contained a visitor’s book heavily ornamented with teddy-bears. I flipped through the pages until I found a large, angular signature that might be “J Albury”. It was quite stark, just a signature between the gushing comments of the too-happy couples on either side. I looked at the date: almost exactly a year ago. I flipped further back. Another year. “J Albury”. I groaned and closed the book and put my head on my knees.
Downstairs, Bartok barked at his tail. I pulled the scrapbook over. It was an obsessive collection of all newspaper and newsletter clippings which mentioned Apple Orchard Cottage, however indirectly. I flipped back through limp, folded pages and shoddy photographs until I found a collection of related articles. There was even some police correspondence—it must have been an exciting occasion for the valley. Honeymooners at local landmark, Apple Orchard Cottage, went picnicking at the dam. The bride went in for a swim, and was never seen again. There was an investigation, searches—nothing. The groom had been on the shore, joking with others near the barbeque at the time. My heart leapt at that—Jack Albury really didn’t seem to be a comedian. I turned the page. This article was from a city newspaper. Promising accountant J. Albury…I read beneath the photo. It was Jack. Much younger, and smiling broadly, but Jack, with his arm around a girl in white, with too many flowers in her hair. How young had they been married? I wondered. They looked like beautiful children. On their honeymoon…two days after the wedding…tragedy…ordeal…investigations continue. I stared at the scrapbook. “I really am a horrible person,” I said out loud. The phone rang.
I scrambled across to where the phone sat, snatched up the receiver and lay on my stomach on the floor. “Mum, Mum!” I shouted.
“It’s your father,” said my dad. “Any luck with the bagpipes?”
“Dad!” I said. “I’ve done a terrible, terrible thing.”
“Oh?” said my father. My parents are very calm, but my mother would have at least sounded concerned.
“There’s a man at the cottage,” I said, and rushed on before my dad’s silence could grow ominous, “They warned me about him, they said years ago his wife drowned in the dam and he comes back for a week at the same time every year and wants to be alone and I left LEAFLETS in his room about WATER-SKIING ON THE DAM, and I joked with him and I lent him GHOST stories!”
I put my forehead on the carpet and then banged my head down once or twice, experimentally.
“Don’t hit your head on the floor, Tori,” said my father. “Here’s your mother.”
I repeated the story while my dad chuckled in the background. My mother’s silence was the one she used when she was wondering whether there was anything to do but laugh.
“It’s. Not. Funny,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Ah,” said my mother. “No, no you’re right. It isn’t. Is he still there?”
“Yes,” I said miserably. “How am I meant to take his breakfast down tomorrow? I can’t show my face. Maybe I’ll leave the food on the doorstep and run.” I brightened. “I’ll go up to the dam early and look at those tracks.”
“Tori,” said my mother. “You need to face up to life, even the bits that are your own fault. Now, he’s still there, so he wasn’t too offended—and anyway, he knows you’re new. Maybe he assumes you don’t know. He might even be glad to have the opportunity to start over, after a fashion.”
“Or he realised you’re socially challenged,” called my brother George in the background.
“Take me off speaker,” I said.
“Alright, dear,” said my mother patiently, “but if I cut you off, don’t take it personally.”
She did, and they didn’t call back. It was only the regular call to make sure I was functioning as an independent adult and not burning the house down or accidentally encouraging a troupe of something that offered wishes to settle in the neighbourhood. Either they were satisfied on that point, or they were laughing too hard at my expense.
I rolled onto my back and stared at the light lengthening across the ceiling.
I was lying there when Jack came to the door and knocked.
“Hello?” he said, peering in. “Tori? I saw the dog…”
“Hello,” I said from the floor, and then realised that probably didn’t enhance the few shreds of dignity I had left. I sat up.
“Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Yes, fine,” I said. “Thank you. And you?”
He looked quickly behind him at the sunlit orchard and said, “May I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” I said, levering myself to my feet. “Of course. What is it?”
He sidled in, slightly embarrassed. He had taken his tie off and his expensive shoes and the hems of his trousers were sodden.
“I don’t have a dryer,” I said in advance.
“What?” He looked down. “Oh, no, I’ll put them in front of the fireplace. I was wondering. Those books. Do you believe in ghosts?”
There’s no right answer to this, I thought, and wished I could read him. My mother could read people. She’d know what he was really asking, or what he wanted to hear, and then would just go ahead and tell him what she thought anyway, but at least she wouldn’t have to wonder if she was being an idiot.
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t, of course, but there are ghosts and there are ghosts.
“Or—or other things,” said Jack. “Those books in there—the crypto…”
“Cryptozoology?” I said, and lied again. “It’s a hobby.”
“So you don’t believe it?”
I pulled a face. My parents, as far as I am aware, have gone through their whole life without even being asked any awkward questions. Most people rarely see less ordinary creatures unless the creatures want to be noticed and I entertained a faint hope that Jack Albury might have an undiscovered talent, but reasoned that he probably saw a white cow through the trees.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” I asked.
Jack had coffee. I cleared off the table and when I had poured the water I put the enamel kettle down on top of a badly misspelled article my brother had sent me headed Mysteries Of the Shalows: Damp Encounters with Mud- and shore-Dweling Myths, which had proven spectacularly unenlightening. Jack stared at my kettle as if it had come out of a museum.
“So, ghosts,” I said. “What brought this on?”
“I don’t know—how much you know. About me,” said Jack. And that was my answer to what brought it on. I hoped he wasn’t in a mood to try communicating with the other side.
“A little,” I admitted, and wanted to gasp out, But I didn’t when I put the leaflets in your room! I restrained myself.
He bit his lip. “I’ve been coming here every year for years. Sometimes I pretend I can see her—Stefanie—my wife. I’ve never actually, well, seen things. I want to let someone know in case…just in case.”
Maybe he thought he had a brain tumour. “Do you want to use the telephone?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Do you mind me telling you? I’ll leave you alone afterwards.”
It seemed a shame to waste the instant coffee. “No,” I said.
“I’m afraid it will all sound like, well, like something out of one of those books,” he said with a nervous laugh. “I can only describe what I saw, though.” Then he didn’t say anything.
“Why don’t you try telling it as if you’re telling a story,” I suggested. “I promise not to laugh or—or be incredulous.”
“Thank you,” said Jack. “Because I don’t believe it myself.”
He had been coming to Apple Orchard Cottage for years—ever since Stefanie died. He could never quite bring himself to drive up to the dam, but he would wander along the bank of the river, through the reeds and under the trees, indulging his misery just this one week a year. He had done this today, and he saw something floating in the river. “My eyes were blurry,” he said, staring past me at the wall, “and at first I thoughtI thought it was a body, bloated and floating.”
“A cow?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “A human body.”
But it had shifted in the water and Jack rubbed his eyes and saw that it was not a dead person at all, but a creature—alive and slimy-green and nubbled all over. Something like a toad, but much larger, and with very blue eyes, which he thought was an unusual colour for a toad.
I agreed, but kept silent.
That was the first peculiar thing. The second was that it spoke to him. I raised my eyebrows politely, and Jack looked embarrassed and studied his hands.
“It’s just nonsense,” he mumbled.
“No,” I said. “No, it’s not. I mean, it might not be. Who’s to say what’s nonsense? It might be a sign.” Signs were good. Signs were mystical and non-committal. In the back of my head I started cataloguing the unusual tracks and burrows I had seen recently—great warty blue-eyed toads were out of my immediate experience. “Go on. What did it say?”
“It spoke very old-fashioned English,” said Jack. “That’s what threw me. If it had hopped out on shore and said ‘G’day, mate!’ I would have known I was dreaming.”
What the toad-thing said was, “Greetings, faithful Jack Albury, why do you weep?” This made sense: some of the immigrant creatures were pretentiously archaic, to the point it would rub off on anyone who spent too much time talking to them.
“My wife,” Jack had replied, startled into answering.
“There’s many would not weep at that,” said the toad-thing.
“She drowned,” said Jack, harshly.
“Would you have her again at your side?” the creature asked.
“Heaven knows I would,” said Jack.
“It is not heaven that can grant her to you,” countered the creature.
“I won’t believe she’s gone anywhere else,” said Jack.
The creature shook its head. “Neither heaven nor hell holds your Stefanie. She lives yet, after a fashion, and may yet be returned to you.”
“How?” asked Jack. “I saw her go into the dam. She drowned.”
“Drowning is not death,” said the creature. “Have you not heard of the undines, the race of river-folk who love all treasure, cold or breathing? They have gathered many fair creatures to their chambers beneath the waves. Yet they, like death, may still be bargained with, if you have true coin and an unwavering heart.”
“I haven’t wavered yet,” said Jack. “But why are you telling me this? What are you? What do you want?”
“What I am is yet to be determined,” said the toad, “but the undines will require gold, and I too have my price.”
“Name it,” Jack challenged it.
The creature laughed. “You must let me spend one night eating from your plate and sleeping beside you on your pillow.”
Jack stepped back. “Bugger that,” he said. “Are you having me on, or is that how you test an unwavering heart? No-one’s ‘shared my pillow’ since Stefanie died.”
“Be it as you say,” said the creature, but when Jack turned to fight his way back through the reeds, it said, “But consider, faithful Jack. Your Stefanie has spent these seven years wrapped in the arms of the undines—is it such a great sacrifice that I ask only to sleep upon your pillow, and that the once?”
Jack was silent, and at last he said, “I don’t have any gold, and I don’t suppose you take credit.”
“You have gold,” said the creature.
Jack stopped telling the story. “After that I came up here,” he said. He shifted in his seat and gazed into his coffee. I looked at his hands. There was a pale mark on his left ring-finger. “Maybe I was asleep,” he said. “Maybe it was a sort of trance. It freaked me out.” He shuddered. “The…thing wasn’t the right colour, and it smelled like something rotting. Have you—” he paused and forced a laugh. “Are there any unusual neighbours?”
“A few,” I said, without thinking. “Look, Jack. Mr Albury.”
“Jack,” he said.
“Jack,” I said. “Even if it was a dream, it’s the sort you should take seriously. Always be careful of bargains with strange creatures. You have to keep your word scrupulously, and even then, who knows?”
“But you don’t think I’m mad,” he said, with a level gaze.
I tipped my head to one side and considered. “I’m not good at reading people,” I said, “so I might be wrong. You’re obsessive, and probably desperate, but I don’t think you’re mad.”
Jack gave another laugh—sharper, but not false. “You aren’t exactly sensitive,” he said, “but I think you can read just fine.”
He stood up.
“Thank you for the coffee,” he said, although he hadn’t drunk any of it. “It’s getting dark and I should go back.”
He put one hand in his pocket, and I thought, His wedding ring is in there, he hasn’t bargained it away.
“Have a good night,” I said, as he went down the stairs. “And be careful.”
I should have drugged his coffee and kept him out of trouble, but I do not have either foresight or common sense. I woke up in the morning thinking, Undines! That’s what made those tracks at the dam—something dragging itself over the mud with its hands. Undines consider themselves to have delicate artistic appreciation, so naturally bagpipes would drive them away. I knew it had been a shot in the dark, but Dad’s suggestion was right. I decided to head upstream early.
“Like lapsang souchong teabags and possums,” I told Bartok, beating out a good-morning tattoo on his ribs with the heels of my hands. He opened his mouth and let his tongue hang out. “Good old folk remedy,” I assured him. “Keeps them right out of the roof.” I washed my hands and put together the breakfast tray and carried it down to the cottage.
There was only Jack’s car there, and I would have heard if anyone had driven in or out during the night, but when I set down the tray outside the door, I heard voices. There was no tv or radio in Apple Orchard Cottage, and no phone reception to speak of. I put my ear against the door.
Two voices, low and happy. I couldn’t make out the words, but one was Jack’s and the other was a woman’s. I felt my heart and stomach sink together, and knocked quickly on the door and walked away. I looked back before I went into the orchard. Jack opened the door and picked up the tray—at least I had been more than generous with the croissants and jam. He was wearing a bathrobe, and a woman put her arms around him and pulled him gently back inside. He didn’t look at me.
I ran back to the house and opened the scrapbook again. There she was, Stefanie Albury, 19. I looked through the articles in case they mentioned a bereaved twin, but there was nothing. I wondered, briefly, if my brother was playing a prank, but it would have needed more effort than he usually gave.
I called my parents.
“Dad,” I said. “There’s a dead woman in the cottage.”
My dad thought this over. “Call the police,” he recommended.
“I can’t,” I said. “They won’t believe me. She’s walking around.”
“Hmm,” said my father. “That could be a problem.”
“Da-ad,” I said. “You aren’t helping.”
“You’re the one who said you could handle an independent beat,” he said.
“I can,” I said. “I’m doing fine. I’ve cleared the orchard of piskie-webs and—oh, apparently there are undines in the dam, which explains so much, including why picnickers keep having shiny things stolen, so I’m going to go up there with the bagpipes as soon as I figure the dead woman out!”
“Start at the beginning,” said my father.
I gave him a potted version, and when I finished I heard him hold the phone away and say to my mother, “Some idiot making deals with the devil.”
My mother got on the other phone.
“Have you been involved at all?” she asked. “Bargains, pacts, deals, tentative arrangements?”
“Agony aunt,” I said.
“Oh, that’s alright then,” she said. “It will sort itself out—think of it as consequences-based education.”
“Survival of the smartest,” said my father.
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a lot. You guys are a real help.”
“Go pipe the undines out of the dam,” said my father. “It’ll make you feel better. Give you a sense of achievement.”
“Do you think they took Jack’s wife?” I asked.
“They like treasure, mostly,” said my mother. “They’re not a very common introduced species, so I don’t know for sure, but I think in the ballads they only ever took people who were exceptional in some way—brilliant sailors or incredibly beautiful, things like that.”
Stefanie had been self-esteem-crushingly beautiful. Maybe even innocent.
“So you’ll be safe, Tor,” said my brother in the background.
“Bye,” I said.
I went out on my rounds in a bad mood, but Bartok was unsympathetic. Back at the homestead, Jack appeared before I could get in my ute and head up to the dam. Bartok pricked up his ears and grinned at Jack.
“Hello,” said Jack, watching me load gear into the ute. His hair looked softer than it had the day before. “Fishing?”
“Mmm,” I said, noncommittal.
“Do you do dinners?” he asked. “It says on the flier that meals are by arrangement and I know I didn’t book in…”
“I can,” I said. “But it will be simple.”
“Thank you,” he said. “That’s fine.”
“For two?” I asked.
Jack turned red. “Yes,” he said.
I held his gaze until he lowered his eyes. I unloaded the fishing rods again.
“I had to take the chance,” he said, evasive. Then a smile lit up his sad face, “And it’s true. It’s her. She hasn’t changed. I don’t know—I don’t want to know how it’s possible.” There was a challenge under the happiness. “I walked up to the bend and threw the ring in, and when I turned back, there was someone walking along the bank. I thought it was you, and then I saw that it wasn’t, and that she was dripping wet as if she’d walked up out of the water. I followed her up the hill and then she turned, and it was Stefanie. It’s as if no time has passed at all.” He was possessed by a fragile, fearful joy and I didn’t want to damage it without evidence—I wasn’t sure it would be good for Jack Albury, after the years of obsession. It was a sign of instability that he’d even spoken to the creature.
I made risotto, heavy on the garlic. I didn’t have any evidence, but when beautiful women started returning from the dead and hadn’t aged a day, it didn’t hurt to be cautious. I carried the tray down to the cottage and knocked. While I waited, I studied the steps. They were wet, as was the bottom of the door. It was marked with little scrapes and grooves, and I wondered if Bartok had been making a nuisance of himself. I looked suspiciously at him, sitting behind me in the dusk, but he just kept on scratching himself until he fell over backwards.
Stefanie opened the door. Even in a robe, with a towel around her hair, she was far more beautiful than the newspaper photos suggested. It wasn’t a showy beauty either, just a pure, unadorned perfection. She smiled, and I studied her for any symptoms of inhumanity, but there were none. Bartok was suddenly between us, in paroxysms of affection. I hooked him back with my heel and pushed him behind me.
“Bad dog!” I said. “I’m so sorry.” I held up the basket, and saw that beyond her the little table was set and candles were burning. “It’s risotto, and garlic bread, and coffee cake.” I hadn’t been able to think of a dessert with garlic, but the cake was decorated with little silver balls, although I wasn’t sure if there was any real silver in them. She had very luminous eyes, exceptional but not alarming, and her loveliness wasn’t brazen or crafted but tremulous and fragile, like light through leaves, or Jack’s new happiness.
“Thank you,” she said gently, and took the basket. Her hands were still damp from the shower, and her fingers were wrinkled. Her nails were short but beautifully manicured. “It’s really lovely to meet you. I’m Stefanie.”
“I’m Tori,” I said. There was a little knot of hatred in my stomach that was only there for beautiful people. Human ones. “Tori Damson.” She didn’t react to my name.
Back in my kitchen, I put extra garlic in my own risotto, to Bartok’s disgust. “I’m not going to invite her in,” I told him. He just sat in the doorway and whined.
After dinner I rang home. My brother answered. “George,” I said, “what do you know about mermaids?”
“They’re like all women,” said George. “They only want one thing.”
“What’s that?” I asked, against my better judgement.
“Shoes,” said George, and cracked up. When he had recovered from his hysterics, I asked, “Are they related to undines? I’m going up to the dam tomorrow and trying to think ahead, work out some strategies that might translate.”
“It’ll just be a crocodile,” said George.
“This is nowhere near crocodile country,” I said, “but if it is a crocodile, I’ll call you.” George called himself a shark whisperer, but anyone can say that—the truth will only come out when they fail. I suspected it was just an excuse for spending most of his time surfing.
“Any advance with the zombie infestation?” he asked.
“Vampire,” I said. “I thought. But she’s not. Bartok likes her.”
“You know that’s not necessarily a good sign, don’t you?” said George. “I told you he’s daft.”
“You told me he’s attracted to liminal states,” I said. He’d also told me Bartok was one-eighth werewolf, which wasn’t a family tree I cared to contemplate. “I think she’s human.”
“You don’t know human,” said George.
“Maybe Bartok likes her because she’s perfect,” I sighed. “You should see her. George, when undines take people, do they ever let them go?”
“No,” said George. “Never. Theirs is an undine love.” He broke down laughing again. “Undine—get it?”
I hung up on him.
I went up to the dam the next day and played the bagpipes, to the annoyance of the few picnic parties. Dad says bagpipes are as basic a tool of the trade as bread-trails and walking the bounds and keeping salt in your pockets, but bagpipe music is much prettier when someone else is playing it in the blue distance, and not on your shoulder. Since I try not to practice, I almost pass out whenever I do play, but I struggled through “Bluebells of Scotland” and “Amazing Grace” and all the classics, because people tend to be more likely to forgive pipers if you play a tune they know. There wasn’t a flurry of bubbles from departing water-folk. I’d have to keep coming back, try and herd them down, and when I’d made the dam unpleasant for them and the tourists, I’d start hitting the quiet waterholes, although that could be awkward. One of the backwaters had something that looked—from the corner of my eye—like a nest, very big and not belonging to any of the invasive creatures I was familiar with. If it was
When I got home I could look down the hill and see Jack and Stefanie wading in the river near Apple Orchard Cottage. Stefanie’s hair wasn’t just blonde, it was gold. I could see the light glancing off it from where I stood. Not a vampire, then. I sighed.
There were three messages on the answering machine—a booking, a complaint about the bagpipes, and George. “It was a pun, but not a joke,” he said. “I’ve been reading up on them and they get bored, but they stay jealous. If they get tired of something they still keep it stored up for a rainy day, and it takes strong—well, you know—to get it out of their clutches…Hey, Tor, why are you worried? You’re riding the fences, aren’t you?”
I called home. “George is out, darling,” said my mother.
“Whispering to sharks?” I asked, sarcastic.
“The beaches have been very safe since he started there,” said my mother.
“Mum,” I said, “there have never been any shark attacks near that beach, and if you ask any of the beach babes, they’ll say the beach was safer before George showed up. You do know he says he’s possessed by the spirit of Errol Flynn?”
“At least he’s doing his rounds,” said my mother. “You are too, aren’t you?”
“Every day,” I said.
“Marked or actual?” my mother asked.
“Both, Mum,” I said. Bartok has a thing for boundaries, and if I let him off the leash I can just trot along after him. Old fences tend to fall near real boundaries, but never exactly, so I have to walk the actual, important edges to make my presence felt, and then go back over the fences themselves to make sure nothing’s broken or fallen over.
“And you still think something’s broken through?” she asked.
That gave me pause. “I’ve been walking them,” I repeated. “But what Jack said…And I’ve seen the newspaper clippings, Mum. It’s his wife. Clearly something has happened.”
“It might not be natural,” Mum said. “Have you thought about it? It mightn’t be creatures. It could be people, big-shot city…sorcery.” She whispered the last word. Conservation and management was one thing, but actually doing magic was something of a dirty word in our house. That was why Mum didn’t like knowing about George charming the surfer girls.
“It’s natural,” I said. “I’d know if people were up to tricks. And besides, there’s Bartok. He only goes loopy when things or people are changing—boundaries and blood sugar levels and were-things. I don’t know what Stefanie is,” I added. “I got a close look at her, and she looks human. But she’s been dead for years.”
“You need to check your boundaries,” said my mum again. “I’m not saying beating the bounds will keep things out, but it sounds like you’ve got all sorts of old-country creatures waltzing in, bold as brass, without a by-your-leave.”
I took dinner down again. I had to knock a few times, then call. This time Jack opened the door. He was sunburned and smiling, although he also looked relieved, which didn’t make sense. Maybe he was very hungry. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. The shower was running in the bathroom and I could hear Stefanie singing happily out of tune.
“Jack,” I said. “Is everything—alright?”
“Yes,” he said. “Everything is just as it should be, as it always should have been. Stefanie remembers nothing—it all seems a blur. Thankfully.” He paused and glanced behind him and then said in a lower voice, “When you came down did—did you see anything?”
“See anything?” I echoed.
Jack shook his head. “Just my imagination. Or the dog, maybe.” He laughed. “It’s easy to imagine anything, right now. Love wins through.”
“And faithfulness,” I said, as Stefanie came through the living room, barefoot and with her wet hair tangled in curls of heavy gold over the shoulders of a shirt that looked like it must have been Jack’s. She waved shyly.
“Thanks,” Jack said, taking the food. I tramped back up to my house chewing over the problem. If Stefanie had simply disappeared for the better part of a decade by her own choice, and showed up again and she and Jack were both satisfied with that, it was none of my business. But Jack’s story and Bartok’s ecstasies suggested other forces were involved. The disappearance in the dam, the colour of Stefanie’s hair, the frog-creature’s story all pointed to undines. But to wash up so lightly right here at Apple Orchard Cottage in the middle of my territory, not even acknowledging the boundaries I’d been strengthening for months, needed something out of the ordinary run even of introduced magics. George had said—or implied—it would take strong magic to get free of the undines. Strong magic, I thought, and frog-creatures and promises and Jack’s enduring faithfulness, coming back every year.
I ran the rest of the way and checked the scrapbook again. It was eight years since Stefanie had disappeared. This was Jack’s seventh visit since then.
I called home.
“You know the answer to that,” my dad said gruffly. “It took your mother seven years to get her hands on me and I’m still stuck. Strongest…meddling there is.”
“Best thing that ever happened to you, dear,” said my mother in the background.
“So what do I do?” I asked.
“Be happy for them,” said Dad.
I didn’t want to be happy for them. I wanted to be uncharitable. I brooded over Jack’s story, then went downstairs to the laundry under the house and fished the pillowcases out of the machine.
Bartok whined. “I know, I know,” I told him. “I’m creeping me out, too.” I held them up to the light of the bare bulb. I had no way of knowing who—or what—had eaten off which plate, but there was no evidence of any slimy toad-creature having slept on a pillow.
“What do you think, Bartok?” I asked. “How faithful is he? And if some gold-leaf girl like Stefanie just walked into your life, how would you feel about letting a bloated, rotten marsh-monster sleep on your pillow? Especially if your long-lost love doesn’t seem to remember the details of her detour?” I thought of the slimy step the day before, and Jack letting me wait, knocking, until he heard me call.
“Idiot,” I said, and Bartok, who knew the word and had been sitting innocently for the last five minutes, looked puzzled. “Not you,” I said. “Jack Albury. I told him to be careful. How many strikes do you think the thing will give him?”
I was slack the next day, hoping the frog-creature would think I wasn’t worried about this being my territory—I wanted to give Jack a chance to fix things. I spent the morning doing laundry and arranging books, until I looked down through the orchard and saw Jack and Stefanie emerge from the cottage. They were holding hands. I wondered what it was like to have someone serve seven years for you.
I packed up a picnic lunch and took it down to deliver to the cottage. Plates near the river—that was a chance to let a creature eat off them. I tied Bartok to a fence post as Jack and Stefanie wandered up. I wondered if her dress was the one she had been lost in.
“Lunch,” I said, with my usual smoothness.
“Oh, how lovely,” said Stefanie. “Thank you. It’s a perfect day, now.”
“We’re—we’ve decided to go back to town,” said Jack, stiffly.
Stefanie smiled apologetically. “It’s so beautiful here,” she said, “but Jack thinks—” she twined her fingers through his, “—we both think we should go home.” Happiness bloomed in her face. Of course Jack would think that. He was hiding from something.
“I hate to break the booking,” said Jack. “I know what the terms and conditions said.”
“About scrupulous compliance with the terms of the agreement?” I asked. It must have sounded heavy-handed. Stefanie looked surprised.
I smiled sweetly. “But I understand—these are special circumstances. But you’re not heading back this afternoon.”
Jack scowled. “No. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
He convinced her too late, I thought buoyantly. That was something else to be said for our splendid isolation.
“Shall I bring dinner tonight?” I asked. “On the house. I’ll make extra.” I put the emphasis on the last word and glared meaningfully at Jack. Stefanie looked mildly bewildered. Jack avoided my gaze.
Bartok watched the couple carry off their picnic, his eyes liquid with adoration. I sat down beside him and put my elbows on my knees. Bartok leaned against me and sighed.
“I know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll leave a note.”
I wrote clearly and succinctly on a page of the local stock agent’s complimentary notebook-and-almanac, which I always kept in my pocket: “Jack Albury. This is a friendly warning—I Know about These Things. You struck a bargain, and if you want the Benefits you’ll have to take the Detriments as well. I am telling you this as Someone who will have to Clean Up After You. TD”, and took it back to the cottage and slipped it under the door. Then I went up the hill again and made myself a cup of tea and brooded until my mum rang.
“Tori?” she said.
“Yes Mum?” I said. There was a pause.
“Well?” she said at last.
“We’re waiting, breathless, for the latest development,” my dad called out.
“Dear,” my mother scolded him. “Let her talk. Is it a happy ending?”
“Not yet,” I said. “Mum, what do I do if they mess everything up?”
“Pick up the pieces,” said Mum.
That evening I took the basket down early, but didn’t knock. I set the basket on the step then went up into the orchard and hid in the grass along the path to watch. Bartok sat on my feet.
The sun sank. I watched the river, but there were no ripples I couldn’t account for. The orchard was peaceful. I had planned to have the old trees torn up and replaced with natives, but they were so old and neglected that I hadn’t had the heart, and since I’d cleared the piskie infestation, the trees had filled again with local inhabitants. I could never quite see them clearly, but I was vaguely aware of them, busy among the twilit branches, going about their lives and happily ignoring me. Bugs crawled over my arms. Suddenly Bartok jumped up, almost jerking the lead clear. I looked at the cottage. I hadn’t seen where it came from, but something large and bloated and sack-like crept up onto the step. It was bigger than I had expected. Bartok whined.
“Zip it,” I told him. He lay down in a huff across my back, stinking of dog, and I was left to imagine if there was a stench of death from the creature at the cottage. It moved slowly around the basket. I had put some of the food in an open container, and as the creature lingered over it, I hoped that it was eating. Then it swung its head suddenly up and looked around as if sniffing the air. I stayed very still, and was glad of Bartok’s uncomfortable and pungent warmth. The thing was giving me chills.
It shuffled around the basket and began to scratch at the door, making a sound like words. I was too far away to hear clearly. Then it stopped as if listening and slowly, slug-like, heaved its bulk down to the path. I expected it to crawl back to the river, but instead it began to work its way around the side of the cottage. Bartok whined. “It’s picking up speed,” I said, sat up and dislodged the dog. Already the creature was rounding the corner, its shadowy form lengthening, growing upright and more agile, slithering around to the back of the cottage where the bathroom window was.
“Bartok!” I said. “Come on!” We raced down the hill, and I expected to hear screams from inside the cottage. I hammered on the door. “Jack! Jack Albury! Open up!” It’s too late, I thought.
Jack opened the door and stared at me.
“What is it?”
“Your dinner,” I said, looking down at the step. There were a few crumbs beside the basket, which was a good sign. “And salt,” I added, fishing it out of my pocket. “I forgot the salt.”
“Why is there grass in your hair?” he asked.
“Camouflage,” I said. “Jack, it’s gone around the back of the cottage.”
He bent down and picked up the basket. When he stood up, he didn’t look at me again. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
“Yes you do,” I answered.
“No,” he said, before I could continue. “What I said to you the other day—I shouldn’t have. I was distressed. I was imagining things. These last seven years have been a bad dream, but they’re over now and neither of us wants to remember them. Thank you for the dinner. We’ll be gone before breakfast. Good night.”
I caught a glimpse of Stefanie wrapped in a towel, looking lovely and anxious, before he closed the door. “Is everything all right?” I heard her say, but I didn’t hear Jack’s answer. I walked around the cottage, wading gingerly through the long grass at the back. My hand felt something damp on the wall behind the bathroom, but the window was closed. I got back to the front. Everything seemed to be normal. I could see Jack’s and Stefanie’s shadows in the firelight.
“I’ve warned him,” I told Bartok. “He’s still got a chance to make this right.”
I lay awake worrying about what ought to be other peoples’ problems while Bartok whined reproachfully under the window and then I slept in. When I looked out the window in the morning, Jack’s car was still parked near the cottage.
“Maybe he did the right thing,” I said to Bartok. Curiosity and hope won out and I struck off through the orchard. I would start my rounds at the river and just happen past the cottage. I was still in the trees when I heard a yell.
Bartok started barking and pulled me through the orchard. We careened out onto the driveway just as Jack opened the door, stumbled down the steps and threw up. Bartok was uninterested. I raced inside.
There was no sign of Stefanie. In the bedroom, a horrible stench made me want to be sick, too. A sweet smell of decay and slime and river mud. Dirty water drenched the mattress and floor, all the way to the window, which was open.
I ran out again and into Jack. He was standing in the doorway, pale. “It was a bad dream,” he said.
I tried to push him aside but he didn’t pay any attention to me. “She’s asleep in bed,” he said. “I’ll walk in and she’ll be there.”
“No she won’t,” I said. I squeezed between him and the doorframe and plunged outside, where Bartok was rolling around in the sun, and into the grass by the river. There was a trampled-down trail in the reeds, and I saw something shining and yellow-green slither along it.
“Stop!” I said. “Stop, this is my territory and I want to know what you’re doing here.”
The sound of rustling stopped, and I parted the reeds and looked down at the thing Jack had woken up to see. It was much bigger than a toad, and all the colours of death and decay. Its shape and limbs were contorted beyond anything recognisable.
“Undine?” I said, although I could see it wasn’t. The thing flinched and blinked. It had luminous blue eyes. I looked down at its splayed, webbed hands and caught a glimpse of gold set into one finger, the decaying flesh grown half over it. In the translucent lumps and warts on its skull and back a few fine yellow strands of hair were embedded and ingrown. “What are you?” I asked.
It gave a rattling, rotting breath and whispered, “Going. I am going.”
“No, no,” murmured Jack at my shoulder. “No—Stefanie.”
The creature heaved itself away and continued to pull itself through the reeds. I followed until I was almost knee-deep in the choked water and the creature slipped easily down. There were a few bubbles and then nothing.
The air was clear again. I stood catching my breath, and then Jack waded past me, out into the river.
“Wait! Where are you going?” I said. He ignored me and fought his way out to deeper water, staggering downstream as the current caught at him.
Behind us, Bartok barked once.
“No!” I said. “No-no-no! She’s gone, Jack, you’ve lost her, you can’t fish her out.” Bartok hadn’t been interested in the creature this time, not the way he’d fallen for Stefanie when she had been at the point of change, trapped between life and the river. Death, even animate death, didn’t interest him.
I kicked off my boots and threw them back on the bank and jumped in after Jack. The current swept me quickly down to him and I grabbed the back of his shirt and kicked out until I got my heels in the mud of the riverbed. I really didn’t want to think what else was down there, let alone whether any undines would have taken the hint and started working their way downstream. I didn’t think I—or Jack, now that he’d failed at the last hurdle—would hold any particular attraction in and of ourselves, but they’d probably be annoyed. The first rule of aggressive bag-pipe playing is to get out of the way of the things you play it at.
Jack didn’t want to come. At first he ignored me, pushing out further into the water, and then he flailed behind him. I got my arm around his chest and tried to swim for shore, but he was taller and stronger than me and could still reach the bottom, and didn’t care.
I held on to him. “Jack!” I said, spitting out river water. “Remember, you can only drown once.”
“I only want to drown once!” he said, and I realised he was only swimming now enough to counter my efforts to get back to shore.
“I don’t!” I said.
“Then let go,” said Jack. He twisted around to face me, treading water. I clung on.
“No,” I said. “I’m not going to let you drown. Not here. It’s bad for business.” His foot caught my leg and I went under and had to claw my way back up his shirt to get to the air. He let me push him down in the water, and I saw him sink, eyes open, air streaming out of his mouth. Through the murky water I thought I saw a twisted hand reach gently for him.
Sad and obsessive, I’d called him. And determined enough to just let himself die. I took a deep breath and dived down after him, got hold of his hair and his sleeve and started kicking my way back to the surface. He was heavy, and he started to fight. I tried to get him in a life-saver grip, though I’ve never been the swimmer in the family. George’s bad puns ran through my head. Shoes, I thought, and laughed, and then thought, I’m drowning, and kicked out—hard. My bare foot struck something fleshy that gave away under my toes. Jack seemed to lighten. I kicked out until the darkness began to lighten. Air or eternity, but I didn’t think I could hold my breath until I reached either. Black spots were in front of my eyes, and then I broke through.
There was a lot of thrashing and a pain in my shoulder and something tore at my back, but I could feel the river bottom and I hadn’t let go of Jack, and I could breathe. I tried to stand, and sank to my knees. The pain was Bartok, who had a hold of my shirt and was still trying to pull me to shore.
“Good dog,” I gasped. “Good dog, let go now.”
Bartok ignored me. He kept his teeth fastened in my sleeve, growling occasionally, as I heaved Jack Albury to the bank. Jack was unconscious. I wasn’t sure what to do for drowning. I read too many old books. Pump his arms up and down? Thump his chest? I tried that first, cautiously, and then with a will because I was angry at him. Nothing happened. I opened his mouth and held his nose and put my mouth over his and blew in, and thumped his chest again.
“Don’t! Die!” I said, punctuating the words with blows. “I wasn’t kidding about the bad publicity. Don’t die!”
I breathed into his mouth again, and this time his lips tasted less like river and more like salt. I realised I was crying. I wasn’t cut out for working with people. I hit him hard, right below the ribs, and then water spilled out of his mouth and he rolled over, retching.
I dropped onto my back, causing difficulties for Bartok who was still holding on to my sodden sleeve, although he seemed less excited now that no one was on the point of dying. In spite of his awkward position he started scratching his ear. I was shaking and cold. My nose and throat felt scoured with silt. I could hear Jack gasping, or sobbing, or both. I lay on the bank and stared at the sky until my hair started drying and the strands blew over my eyes, then I sat up and disengaged Bartok’s teeth. He wandered away. My sleeve was still wet with water and blood, but twisting to look at it I could see that the bite wasn’t very bad, although the scratches of Bartok’s claws on my back still stung.
Jack Albury lay with his eyes closed. He was breathing, but his lips looked blue. I shook his shoulder. “Come on,” I said, and hauled him to his feet. We went back to the cottage. He didn’t want to go inside so I fetched a blanket to put around him and boiled water and made tea, and Bartok retrieved one of my boots. I never found the other.
I hoped, a little, that Jack would realise that there were things in the world that he hadn’t heard of, and people like my family who were expected to deal with them, but I don’t know much about people. Jack Albury didn’t want to realise. He had already convinced himself that the whole thing was a nightmare, a delusion, the champagne from the gift basket, or all three. I suppose if I had lost my true love twice, woken up to her living corpse on the pillow beside me and then had my landlady stop me killing myself I wouldn’t have wanted to be clear on all of the details. Jack never came back to Apple Orchard Cottage, and I hope that means he moved on.
When my family called I gave them a summary, which George filled in with lurid colour. I spent several days in bed, only emerging to feed Bartok and show him some appreciation. After that I had to start all over again, herding the undines out of the dam.
I don’t know how long it takes a dead woman to die. Stefanie’s only crime was being so beautiful that she was more attractive to those diminished, exiled undines than their usual prey of watches and spare change. She’d been torn from the undines by the magic of seven years of faithfulness, and from Jack Albury by his not being able to keep one promise. I hope she’s not lying at the bottom of the river, waiting for it to disintegrate her and sweep her away. It must be desperately lonely down there.
I often make a little extra at dinner and take the plate down to the bend of the river where Jack and I almost drowned. The food is gone in the morning, but there are many things out there that could have taken it. None of the visitors to the cottage have ever reported seeing blue eyes watching from the reeds, or a glimpse of gold beneath the water.
“Undine Love” copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Jennings
Reprinted from Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #52
Art copyright © by Kathleen Jennings