America the Beautiful.
She could not tell you when she quit loving him. If asked, she looks aside and says she doesn’t know, although there is another answer lurking in the set of her mouth, the way her eyes dart, the pause before she speaks. Her eyes are darker than the strand of blood coral around her neck, thick with the patina of generations of hands. Her fingers slowly count a path between the beads and the collar of a white, frilled shirt.
The lights in this place — stage lights, not the distant free-standing tungsten-glare she’s used to — are too hot, choking.
Oh. These? My grandmother’s — yes — Yes, a wedding gift — Polish tradition.
Consciously, her hand drops. The chair, unlike her body, does not complain as a platinum ring digs into its flesh. Her face closes behind a bleached smile neither talk-show host nor cameras can hear past.
It wasn’t one thing, no: no major event as she calculates the calendar of their relationship. No pivotal blow that set soft words and amorous glances askew: it was all the little disappointments which congregated in her eyes, churning and braiding themselves, bit by bit, into a well-tempered hate.
And like all true hatreds, it began with joy.
Sarmatia, land of Amazons, gryphon’s gold and centaurs.
Fingers dig into my shoulders. Thin tanned ones.
Smoke upon the plain, at our backs.
The sky is yellow-gray, orange, then dark: clouded with crows.
Hawks wheel, outnumbered
dive in where smoke meets bleached straw:
bent twigs and embers.
riderless. Their manes penumbras.
My mother isn’t crying.
One arm hangs limp, tied across her chest, broken:
it takes two good arms to wield a bow — but only one to grip a child.
A splash, halfway through the river, as we cross.
Coral sinks, turning green beneath the water.
Grass sways over it: mermaid’s hair, they call it.
Whether oath or curse rasped
between taut fingers and red sea-bones
only water knows.
Polonia, source of amber and slaves, known dimly in Byzantium.
I am seven.
Mother’s hands, slim and pointed. The nails shine.
The rhythm of the comb as it pulls through guilty hair, seeking truth: mine is not as straight as hers, but it stole her yellow. A hiss of antler tines through knotted locks, held fast by fingers that, in my hair, still hold the memory of a bowstring. A pressure and twisting across my scalp as she braids.
The bird-like drawing and tucking of stamped pins — tin, not gold — into my hair. Gold is left for the heads of wheat, bundled thick on trade rafts as the retreating sun flames on the dark Vistula River, framed by a thickly notched timber window-sill. My little cousins, whose name now binds them to this house (fortress town rule and family synonymous), run barefoot beside the banks, their cast-off boots standing safely upon the berm as mud splashes their legs.
Red wool, felted, her sleeve buffeting my cheek. And warm breath, a rasp.
All this was yours, my mother says. A sweep of her arm like a hawk’s wing, gliding over the lands beyond the open window. Her eyes gleam as she presents me to the mirror, a cap of starched, embroidered linen and river pearls trapping my hair.
But now … only this.
My inheritance is bound by a mirror: beads the color of a dying sun, river-polished and river-pitted. She reaches behind my neck and the full weight of her passed-on burden falls upon my chest. With a hiss, two eagles cast in silver twist at my nape– whether locked in courtship or in combat only their maker knows.
Through her fingers, I inherit her hate.
I am seven.
A New Jersey childhood.
Iron hair, held bent by pins. Twisted hands hover over a table, gnarled around a teapot, pouring. In a precise measure, the gilded white eagle’s head spout rises, filling my cup to the brim.
What you think? I am not stepmother!
My grandmother Marya, long withered from the ghost I will grow into, whose round face and siren stare haunts the walls, fixed in silver, predicting me. Of the five languages she speaks, English — the last learned — is her weakest. The only one my mother speaks.
Marya and my mother, two hawks with talons bared, slowly circle the table. The old bird’s fine red tether of ancient, old-world coral bobs angrily as she gestures. (That necklace, she tells my mother repeatedly, shall only go to me.)
All Teddy wants —
All we want —
I nibble hard ginger snaps, sweetened miserly by molasses and eye the ancient, tarnished can of darjeeling from which I routinely steal the small, pink balls of sugar-coated coriander.
The argument is always the same.
It has nothing to do with me.
I like the sound the sugar balls make, breaking between my teeth.
A family farm bordering the woods.
Russian-occupied Polska, the infant 1900’s.
Winter was Gypsies.
A first hard crust upon the ground
then an evening wind
smelling of horses against firewood. Cold-hushed voices, gray creak of the barn door.
Crosses drawn meticulously at doorways and windowsills,
lest the band bring bad, unwitting luck with it.
Misfortunes, like ailments, are contagious —
the ire of parish priest and mountain czarwonica
damn just as fiercely here
at the edges where elderly town and forest meet.
A sole man in snow-crunched boots and weather-tattered coat, somehow both a pine tree approaching, and an old bear.
Mother quickly takes a scoop of dirt, smears it on my forehead with a kiss.
Matya Ziembla, she mutters, pats my head.
A custom far older than crosses, and surer:
could even Christ love so fiercely as our All-Mother?
My younger brother refuses
with a baleful look
and she doesn’t insist, but continues to usher me (and him)
though he balks at her walking out alone —
even with the safety of a blackened silver cross under her shirt,
babuska walling up her evanescent chestnut hair
and lantern in hand.
An afterthought, she tucks old coral — the last strand, my strand —
out of sight beneath her dress,
the last security.
The old pine bends towards the lantern-moon.
Words exchanged, taken by wind. Mother’s face, seamed by concern
oversees an equally hushed annual procession:
Matya Ziembla and her unlucky husband, the Moon, witness
as thick carpet bags and donkey-carts
fill our barn
A romantic vacation in Poland.
Another whoosh, a bob, the cold, cold tang of Baltic river-water, stinging eyes, stealing breath. With each bob, blood coral beads smack from the water-surface into her breast. The dress, too thin, plastered to her chest like seaweed now, its skirt a jellyfish halo at her hips, upturned rowboat bob-bobbing like a message in a bottle, too slick for her to grasp. All around the flotsam of their trip flows away: wicker basket (now free of ice and flopping trout), fishing pole, Moët bottle, sandwiches and sandals gobbled into the deep.
When no lopsided grin surfaces to keep her company, panic invokes the ghosts of icy looks: remembered I hate yous buzz back over the waves to swarm her. Her memory-tape rewinds to a warm, reassuring weight, his hand on hers, accompanied by words.
Hon, it’s not us: it’s other people. We’ve been pulled too fast in too many directions, he said. All our time’s been sucked away by things someone else told us to care about. We just need to get away. Back to the beginning, and it will be alright.
Here in the mother-country where her features are ubiquitous, where no clerks pause, embarrassed, deciphering her anonymoustrue name — the one she always kept, not the name they hear in photographs, cropped by her agent at opportunity’s door.
So far from the telescopic safety of camera clicks, her husband’s promise remains only a memory.
A minute upon the water alone.
Outside a small country town in Russian-occupied Polska.
World War I has not broken out yet.
Shuffling back from night school, trusting Father Moon to guide her steps, she whispers prayers against bears both four-footed and human. A familiar lump of darkness detaches itself from a tree trunk, coalescing into a frayed coat, old man stoop and skin-soaking smell of livestock.
Moishe always finds her, though she never tells him the route or destination, which changes weekly. Old ghost without a family, he haunts her steps. (A learned man, her mother says — so you should listen — though this means little now, his ancient town and God and learning lying ashen under Russian hate, foreign brethren too much a reminder of what he’s lost, here in a strange land where priest and rabbi can surreptitiously clink glasses over tobacco and cards, united by complaints against the Russians — his lot now to sleep beside the horses and earn unholy meat with other wanderers.)
When Marya pulls the small, ordinary volume with its stolen Cyrillic cover from beneath her jacket, a bright spot of coral shows between the fabric and her skin. Moishe’s eyes dart to it as if to a scar, while his bark-like hand takes hold of her damningPolish book, though he cannot read one word inside the cover.
It is several paces before he makes a sound, low and sharp, and in his own language. (His own tongue and writing flow like a music she cannot hope to follow, spied by lamplight on Friday evenings, gnarled finger chasing written words along as old lips follow.) Out of Imperial earshot, he gives her the halting courtesy of Polish.
How long … your mother has?
Marya looks at the grass beside her feet and shakes her head. Mother’s cough only got worse. She had been weakening — and lying to her — for quite some time about the blood-stained handkerchiefs collecting at the bottom of laundry piles, hidden in the crevices between clean-folded sheets. Misplaced during the washing for her cycles, she said.
Muttering (something darker than an old-man mutter), Moishe stops in the middle of the path, shaking his head and shoulders like a balking horse — then, suddenly, he turns.
The whites of his eyes are huge.
Little hawk, I tell you. If you want to know how much time left. I tell. So you can finish.
Tell her? To count out the golden hours like drops of blood coral knotted to a cord?
Tell her? The Kracow mermaid’s sword pins Marya to that patch of earth alone, forever alone in an agony of moonlight.
Her lips move, they must have, because Moishe’s face is intent. His cracked voice is bizarrely distant.
It is alright. God tells me.
He stabs a finger at the sky, then himself, as he says this.
Marya’s feet move backward, not feeling the way, and her cold hands twine around coral, because beneath her blouse there is no cross. Moishe grips her hard, stares down at her, implacable as an oak trunk in a gale. Same God. Do I lie? Ten years, you know me. Have I lied? Same God … for all of us.
He steers her onto an old tree stump beside a brook and waits until her storms pass and she can clearly see the road. The mermaid’s blade still pins her, but she can breathe calmly again and her eyes show signs of light. Moishe gently taps the coral beads clutched in her white fingers.
When she give you this?
Two days ago.
Good. Good for telling, then.
He holds a calloused hand up, gestures for Marya to hand her necklace over. She remains a statue (albeit miraculously vocal and weeping) staring from the tree stump.
It would be like handing him her mother.
Fine. Fine. This way, then.
The statue-that-was-once-Marya can’t balk when Moishe leans forward and closes his sweating hand around hers, still clutching the beads resting between her breasts. Her breath hangs ghostly in the air a moment. The wind blows, greedily sucking it away. Moishe’s eyes are dark and focused. They make small movements, like an eagle tracking its prey; head cocked, lips moving to a conversation Marya cannot hear.
And, even by moonlight, she can see his face go pale.
Moishe does not cross himself, but whatever he does, sharply swearing, must be equivalent.
Hurl them in the river!
Your beads. Little hawk. Little hawk. It is not right.
Wiła, the River Queen, your Mother, she follows you. She cries for her dead husband, whose blood hangs at your neck.
Give it back.
Throw away my mother?!
Marya shrieks, she pounds, she tears away, hits his hands that try to grasp her. An oak tree crashes in the forest and she stumbles away, firmly clutching the necklace that is her birthright, down that narrow field path toward her home, away from this topsy-turvy Gypsy-Jew insanity born from too many losses and toward the real, unholy and physical surety of her mother’s coughing death.
Poland. Within a river. The present.
Cold. Surrounding her. And sound. Not just hitting but filling her ears, her nose.
Bubbles trail like mermaid’s scales in Lena Riley’s wake, blurring the grey-green-blue, shedding more than air.
Hands, arms and legs lance precisely against time, her enemy.
Of course, the upturned rowboat is not only dark, but empty.
(oh god. how deep to the bottom?)
Her husband is a strong man, an athlete. He would have re-surfaced, along with their picnic.
If he was conscious.
Five minutes. (How long has it been?)
She has five minutes for him to breathe again.
Another gulp of air, inhaling time. Lena plunges down again, into roiling color, light and sound. Beneath the choppy, slapping surface it is a horizontal fairyland, a jungle kingdom. A fat, familiar trout eyes her warily, hook and broken line trailing from its mouth in accusation. Thickets of fine, slick algaeic river grasses slap her face, her limbs. Looping around wrists and ankles, weaving to tangle between fingers.
Mermaid’s hair, they call it.
(Don’t go in pond, bubbula, Wiła will get you!)
Gliding urgently above a ledge, from a thick clump of grass, a hand — it is a hand —
grasps her ankle from behind.
The world is vertical again, and time flows like glass.
The hand is attached to a slender, moon-white arm. It is definitely an arm, and not a fish. Cold flows from it, through ankle to her spine.
Floating beads of coral sink to a fiery standstill at her breast.
Among the mermaid’s hair before her there is a white striped shirt, a titanium watch glinting, a pair of eel-like limbs twined around a neck.
The face pressed to her husband’s face is a decade younger than her. No breath of life will ever come from those lips. The hair is far too long and a river-depth of blue. It is somehow hers— and not her face— that lifts up to glare back at Lena.
Grandmother … Marya?
A swish of river-grasses — her dress — a tail?
No, the eyes are Asian — truly Asian from the Steppes — not the faint echo passed down from her grandmother’s face. They see a gold companion ring and they see blood-coral at her neck and the hatred in their river-bottom depths is her hatred at being left alive, too young widowed.
Ricky’s unconscious, gaping face flickers into not-quite-his-face as well: short brown hair stolen by long gold, the five o’clock shadow now a sparse youth’s dusting at the chin; a phantom arrow shaft juts from his neck as the river maiden takes him deeper, into the center.
You can’t scream beneath the water: to scream there is to drown.
Lena kicks away the hand twined at her ankle, to find it is no longer there: a cloud of mud, detritus, slimy rock meets her. A cracked, ridiculously flourescent tackle-box of fishing lures. She kicks past them toward the river maiden’s lair.
(It’s not her name being called, it’s oxygen-deprivation, an illusion.)
(It’s not her grandmother’s voice, sharply calling it.)
(Nor her grandmother’s not-ancient hand, clamped down on her wrist, her arm as she struggles with delirium.)
You little bitch! You throw away our name! My good name I give you! Our ancient name, all I have to give!
No, I didn’t. My agent threw it away. I kept your names when I got married.
Who are you?
That is your name. That is not you.
There is a sound flowing across Hełena-Marya Kassovicz’s throat, a sound she has not heard before but knows in the pit of her tongue, a name buried in the beads she wears looped around her throat. A name, many names, forgotten names by which all the daughters of the holy maiden Vistula River may be called.
Take our name back, Hełena. And I will do what Moishe told me long ago.
There is a sharp tug at her throat, pain at the nape of her neck where a stubborn gold clasp digs in before braided silk snaps against vertebrae.
A brick wall collides with her forehead, neck and shoulders. Or she collides with the wall.
Is it blood or blood coral that beads up in the water around her, as Hełena sinks into a fiery, oxygen-deprived sleep?
Light can stab the eyes as surely as any pain. So can breathing. It is air Hełena breathes, and it takes a long time to move. A tiny rock digs into the nape of neck; her mind is filled with cotton. Small, sleepwalker motions: yes, her wedding ring is there. Her necklace, her necklace. No.
She’s on her knees, scrambling. Wet feet sliding precariously among the grass, rocks and mud of the steeply pitched bank, dirt splashing on all her limbs, her dress.
Beneath a forked and swaying river birch, high up on the bank, a human-shaped lump turned over on its side.
His eyes are shut, but there is a slight movement, breathing, though his limbs are still. A slight, not unexpected, wheeze of water. His waterproof watch is cracked, frozen firmly at 00:00.
Ricky, wake up.
When she pushes hair back from his face and neck, a little blood smears on her finger. She wads a clean but soaking corner of her skirt, awkwardly, against it.
A very sharp breath. He stirs.
No, no, don’t move fast. The cut just missed your artery. It’s not deep.
That fish you couldn’t pull in …? I was getting it. Then …?
A swell came.
The hell? Water was fine.
She points downstream, toward a distant river-muffling dam.
Must have opened a lock.
Fuck. They said next week!
A small, repeating nod. You okay?
A black smile. Okay enough to say ‘fuck’. You?
Better’n you, I think.
His forced smile relaxes into an honest one, more eyes than mouth. A slow, deep breath. S’good. His hand misses hers, slightly, on first try, but it can squeeze quite well. Limbs follow in slow, jerky motion.
Ow, Jesus –
She helps him sit up, and, backs against the smooth, sun-warmed birch trunk, they let pain subside and clarity return.
A rapid shimmer against the sky above the water. Two white hawks dance their courtship above the river, wingtips skimming water beneath the sun.
[Shirl Sazynski writes scenarios and scripts for VietheGame.com. She received an honorable mention for poetry in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008. Her poems, articles, illustrations and comics have appeared in literary journals, magazines and newspapers across the US. She has found that the New Mexico desert preserves many remarkable things — including pagan beliefs and traditions now mostly gone from the Western world. Please visit her site.]