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Ursula's Daughter

Ursula’s Daughter
By Alison Bainbridge 

She watches the fire flicker, sparks leaping up to dance like fireflies in the smoke. There are voices around her, warm and laughing, but she can’t hear a word over the pop-crackle of burning wood and the rush of water in her veins. Beneath borrowed clothes, her tentacles have woven themselves back into the legs of her flimsy human shape; her lungs ache with every breath of air and woodsmoke. For a moment, when she’d resurfaced, she’d forgotten how to breathe even though she’s spent more of her life on land--up mountains, and in the desert--than under the water.

She grips her mug, filled with coffee and bourbon, and exhales.

A freshwater lake in November, in the middle of her friend’s wedding no less, was probably the wrong place to rediscover near-forgotten heritage. She’s never precisely denied anything, but no one’s ever thought to ask--especially not since she moved to Colorado--and over the years she’s become so human that she very nearly forgotten that she isn’t. She lives in a desert, as far away from the ocean as possible. She’d forgotten right up until biting cold water had closed over the top of her head and swallowed her up and her instincts had kicked in and her body had reacted before she could think. She’d gasped for air and--

she stretched out through the water,
caught in strange currents and
blue-green freckles of light and
power sliding through her as she
drifted in the dark and deep. 

Under the coffee and the booze, she can still taste the fish that had swum too close, drawn in by her bioluminescent limbs as she sifted them through sedimentary mud and lost objects, looking for the phone she’d jumped in to retrieve. Earrings, watches, all things lost forever. She shivers. It’s just as well that it had been the wrong water and the wrong time, or else she might have stayed and lost herself amongst them. Then Magda would have had to rename it Lake Octopus-woman, and that would (be awesome) not be the best wedding gift in the world. In the end, she’d followed the firelight and the glow of a million fairy lights back up to the surface and only now that she’s drying out, she feels cold.

“I have no idea how she even found it. That lake eats things,” Magda says. She’s leaning over to her maid of honour, their dark heads bent close together. They’re still talking about it, and she has a horrible feeling that this moment will be brought up every time someone talks about the wedding--that bridesmaid who dropped her phone in the water and decided to jump in after it.

“She’s magic,” Sarah whispers back.

Fortunately, there are worse people to be around while remembering the fact that you’re a sea monster. Fortunately, they didn’t see enough for Sarah to know that she’s right.

* * *

She tries the transformation again in Colorado, after the flight home. Her son is safely at his Dad’s house, so she has the place more or less to herself.

She runs the bath.

She’s never transformed in the bath before and it’s honestly never occurred to her to try. But then, she’d never transformed in the lake either, no matter how many times she swam in it with Magda when they were younger. But now that it’s happened, she’s curious. What will it take to do it again? What does she look like in broad daylight? She’d transformed enough as a child to know it could happen, but she can’t remember looking at herself, and all she’d been able to see at the bottom of the lake were the glowing flecks that lined each tentacle stretching off into the murk as her limbs had twisted out around her. Lines of regimented stars that bent to her will, swirled in time with her movements, and lured fish close enough to eat. She’d caught a glimpse of the suckers too, when she’d pulled that doomed fish up to her mouth. Greenish-pale like something dead and rotting, and lined with inch-long teeth. She’d been right, when she’d argued about adaptations of The Little Mermaid with Magda and Sarah that first day in Georgia--deep sea creatures aren’t pretty, waifish things who serenade seagulls. They’re pallid, monstrous things that have teeth and spines and they slide through ink-dark water at the edges of the dead zone like living weapons.

She looks down at the water in her bathtub. It glitters white against enamel in the sunlight, cold-looking despite the steam rising off it, and oddly sterile. Something inside of her cringes away from it, remembers whispers of tanks and experiments and keeping secrets--things she’s thought of on and off since childhood before she forgot to bother. She glances at the locked door, at her human legs, and back at the water.

She sighs.

She reaches for the bath salts instead and decides: fuck it. She’s back at work tomorrow and she needs to relax more than she needs to see herself. She is what she is--

Ursula was always her favourite:
always dramatic,
swirling tempest-swift
through her garden of trapped souls
and laughing, loving
herself and her powers and her freedom under the sea.
Not a sister, but
that crazy aunt
or estranged mother
who saw distant places and carried stories in the
lines of her skin and
vanished after every Thanksgiving, sending
postcards from Peru or from
gas stations three States over.
Not a hero except for when
she is; not an idol, but
someone she thinks she could be
one day
when she lets the salt water in.

Snow begins to fall. Temperatures drop. It’s colder here than at the bottom of the lake; colder than the ocean’s dead-zone where gravity bends and air turns to poison. It’s not as cold, though, as the night air in front of the fire, where she’d sat sipping bourbon and coffee and drowning out conversations with the sound of her teeth chattering.

She flips open her notebook to write. Biro scribbles have filled nearly every page already, half-worked phrases scratched through and doodles climbing up margins. She finds a blank one sandwiched between two of her twisted nursery rhymes and sets pen to paper. She inks a set of tentacles emerging from the binder hole as she lets her imagination drift. Fairy tales aren’t a huge step away from the nursery rhymes she’s already carved into new horrors; more well-worn, perhaps, but no one has to read it. No one has to see until she’s ready.

Just like the rest of her.

* * *

Alison Bainbridge is a PhD candidate, witch and author based in Newcastle, UK. When not researching horror podcasts, she can be found collecting bones, talking to cats, and photographing mushrooms in the woods. Her fiction has been published in Revenant journal and Daughters of Darkness (2019, ed. Blair Daniels), and her poetry has previously been featured in Wormwood Press and Glitchwords magazines.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?
I’m inspired by everything: real life events, half-heard conversations, the quiet parts of a forest where you can feel the earth breathe. Everything is a potential story or poem if you let it be, and I’ve always felt a compulsion to do so. I’m extremely fortunate that I’ve been encouraged to put my thoughts into words, and get my stories down on paper, from an early age. Perhaps especially now, the support of friends is so important and I’m extremely lucky in my relationships in the writing community. I don’t necessarily think that I would stop writing without them, but I would enjoy it less. So. Thank you.