I knew the sky would not hold her. The truth in the stories is not nature or magic: there was no deus ex machina transformation into a sparrow. The girl fell from the cliff, her body a final exhale from the world above the lake, until she came to me.
Our water is both a wall and a door.
The lake laid the girl to rest within the henge of stones inscribed with luminous green algae, embedding her in the centuries-thick humus of leaf, scale, cloth, and bone. Her long hair swayed like weeds.
The fish crept from their hiding spots: only a small band of survivors, with lean bellies and dull scales, eyes darting in hunger and fear. They kissed away her clothing and skin. The lake’s gentle susurration eroded the hurt she had carried inside like a stone, while the fish excavated her, taking meaty chunks of heart and lungs to their broods.
Had she jumped or been thrown? She remembered a page torn from a book. Wet ink shining in candlelight. Running…towards or away? It didn’t matter. Either way, she was a part of the lake now.
She lay a long time, sheltered in peace and fecundity, becoming a skeleton girl tied together with sinew scraps and tattered linen. A gold chain tangled around her clavicle, an oval pendant hanging in place of her heart.
A hook cut through the water and caught on her rib. The lake roared and resisted as the girl erupted from her bed, surging upwards. The speed of her ascent strained at her sinew, and her jawbone gaped in a ghostly scream. She lost finger bones.
As she broke through the lake’s surface, someone cursed, the sound slapping her hard like a cold wind, or a familiar hand.
I had made her beautiful. Of course, she had been beautiful to begin with, as we all had been in our own myriad ways: bodies, minds, talents. But, in truth, our water is both nature and magic, so the girl’s bones had transformed to creamy white pearl, her sinew to silk. She gleamed in the sunlight and shuddered as I lost my hold on her.
The fisher pulled her halfway over the prow of his rowboat. He ran his calloused hands over her cheekbones and the crystals jutting from her spine, but his eyes blazed at the wink of gold between her ribs. He carefully unwound the necklace.
At the edge of fear is a threshold, like a waterfall I once encountered, thundering outside the mouth of a wizard’s cavern. Stay inside and be mired in the mud. Or leap, trusting the river will take you somewhere better, even though it will hurt.
There is always a moment before the decision, a moment when a terrible, ponderous knowledge descends, a moment so heavy with fate that we are lost within ourselves.
And once that moment passes, we know what it takes to push through the threshold. And equally, we know why we turn away from it.
The girl forced her arms up, placed broken hands on the fisher, and pushed. Pushed. He let go with a scream, scrambling to the back of the boat. It rocked wildly. She heaved herself overboard when the prow dipped, slipping back into my embrace. The necklace sank down after her like a stray sunbeam.
Later, the Great Heron told me the fisher spread his terrifying tale throughout the village. Haunted, was the word he used; the lake is not quite that, but close enough, and that word works as effectively now as any protective spell I cast in life before. The superstitious villagers kept away, turning to their crops and trades to sustain them, and only leaping fish changed the patterns of our surface. Eventually, their boats became hearth kindling.
The girl gathered her scattered finger bones from the lake bottom and uprooted the strong-stalked weeds that grew there, binding her bones together tightly. She would not lose any part of herself again.
But now she was restless, unable to settle back into the lakebed. She swam, enjoying her place within the water’s own movement, and the fish, grown hale and shiny, darted around her. She glided through decades, length and breadth, back and forth, as the lake healed. The water turned a deep royal blue. In the shallow parts, the bottom became visible, vibrant with plants and salamanders. Her bones hummed with frogs’ symphony at dusk and dawn. In the winter she skated underneath the ice. In summer the dragonflies raced her, with the Great Heron watching. She changed her weeds with the seasons.
One day she basked in the warmer shallows, closer to the trees from the world she had left behind. She listened to the water’s song as it played upon the smooth rocks at the shoreline and watched the trees sway above the surface in wind and ripples.
A figure crouched at the lake’s edge. They spoke, the words coming to her muffled by the perpetual voice of the water. She did not understand the language. Droplets fell on the rocks, into the channels between. The water carried them back to her, diluting like ink, but she could still taste the underlying emotions: Despair. Desperation.
The words spoken did not matter now. The feelings did, and she felt them again after all this time, the terrible heartache and the urge to run.
She and this person were the same underneath, in the bones.
The skeleton girl rose. She broke through the surface, unflinching as the water slid away. She brushed weed strands from her hollow eye sockets in an old gesture, able to see the person clearly now.
They had blue eyes the same color as the lake. They stood but did not run or scream. Without hesitation the girl reached inside her chest, broke the pendant’s chain, and offered it. After a long moment, the person stepped carefully along the wet stones and waded into knee deep water to accept it. They cradled the pendant in long fingers, turned it over and over, found the hidden seam. They went back and searched the shoreline until they found a stone with a sharper edge, broke the seal, and pried it open.
Out fell a small paper packet. Unfolded, it revealed a poem, annotated in ink: handwritten words scratched between printed lines and stanzas, marked by blots and blurs. The person read it, again and again, devouring the words as sustenance. Finally, they took great gulps of air and looked back across the lake with eyes watery yet defiant.
I, too, gave something I had, a long time ago, in a different land: a sword, although eventually it was returned, its work unfinished.
I gave it to the wrong person. I gave it without listening, to myself, to intuition.
In hindsight, it was so much more than a tactical error.
But not so now. The girl had listened. Her bones ignite, crumbling into ash, leaving behind a blazing pure light. She finally sees me then, sees all of us who have been here with her all along, murmuring to her, all of us who had given ourselves to water. We are columns of prismatic flame, burning bright above the surface. The images of who we once were flicker inside, never lost. We are all the Lady of the Lake.
And now, the person on the shoreline sees us too.
Lori J. Torone is an adjunct professor of English and Speech and a member of SFWA. She lives in New York with her two teenagers and a small, bossy (but cute) dog. She loves medieval literature and Renaissance Faires. Her work has appeared in Podcastle and is forthcoming in Metaphorosis’s Museum Piece anthology and 99 Fleeting Fantasies. She is currently writing a mythic fantasy novel. You can contact her on twitter @MedievalLit.
photo by Lucas Lenzi (via unsplash)