Burnt Pine

“One for You” By Jennifer Todhunter

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It is said that Tim didn’t want to go, that he would’ve died in the waves before leaving Wanda and their twin daughters at sea. And history agrees that Wanda would have kept him below the surface if she could, where they’d lived after he fell from his fishing boat. But Tim had earth in his veins, don’t ever forget that. And Wanda was made for the water.

There were signs, of course, indications that Tim was faltering: blooming fungus on his skin, an imbalance in his electrolytes, muscles that started to atrophy. It is said they knew their relationship wouldn’t last forever, but that they’d hoped it would last much longer. They told themselves that a fifth-generation fisherman wasn’t meant to marry a mermaid. That their daughters were miracles. They’re not of this world, Tim said the day their twins were born onto a bed of seagrass and weeds, and to some extent, he was right. The girls inherited his wild, green eyes and bore Wanda’s mane of thick, brown hair, so like the hair that had swept Tim up in the first place. But it was how they spun into each other, like a two-sided tornado catapulting through the depths, that made him wonder what ran in their blood.

It is said Tim and Wanda spent the last of their last days together in the shelter of Gold Harp Cave, dining on sea urchins, oysters, and mussels while Lily and Violet cooed in their reed bassinets. And nobody has contested it was Wanda who finally cast Tim to shore. That she couldn’t bear to see the water wash him away in his entirety. And if you ask anyone who was sunbathing along the sandy coastline mere miles from where Wanda and Violet bobbed in the currents, they’d tell you a suffering man appeared out of nowhere on the crest of a wave with a baby girl in his arms. And maybe one or two of them would tell you that over the seagulls cawing and the whip of the wind, they heard a voice singing:

one for you, and one for me, one for the land, and one for the sea

#

It is said Tim was blessed with amnesia when his body sank into the sand that day, that his memories spilled out as he coughed frothy, dark water from his lungs. But that would be wildly incorrect. You see, this isn’t meant to be a story of great sadness, but in some respect, it’s exactly that because Tim remembered everything. The way Wanda blew new life into him when she came across his body falling to the ocean floor. How he looked forward to the soft scratch of her skin when she coiled her tail around him while they slept at night. What it felt like to become a father for the first time. And so, as he found his footing on land again, the water dripping from his pores, he kept his daughter clutched tightly to his side and pretended not to recall a thing.

Before long, the excitement died down as it does. People no longer gasped when they saw Tim in town or demanded to know where he’d been and why he’d emerged from the water mere steps from death. It is said he sold his float home and fishing boat for a substantial loss, took his limited furnishings, and moved to a cabin set deep in the forest, as far from the water as he could be. However, that might have been his first mistake. For you can’t move a mermaid too far from her home, even if she’s too young to remember. And as the story goes, great love can endure, but the same cannot be said for the separation of two souls who were twisted together in the womb of a woman.

#

Violet didn’t care much for the rules, that is a fact. It is said that Wanda couldn’t control her from the time she was out of her algae-lined diapers. That Violet could always sense the loss she’d experienced, even though she wasn’t consciously aware of it, and it caused her to do crazy things. There was a near miss with a blue-ringed octopus when she was five, a close call with a speedboat just before she turned seven, and an encounter with a blacktip shark on her ninth birthday. She was thought to be untameable. Like the earth inside her veins was clouding her better judgment.

“I don’t belong here,” Violet screamed at Wanda after she’d torn her away from the rocks near shore.

“Well, you don’t belong on land either,” Wanda hissed, pulling Violet as fast as she could toward home.

It wasn’t until she found fourteen-year-old Violet hanging out at the gas fields with her friends, huffing from a split in a pipe that she knew something had to change. And so, it is said, that evening, after the shells were washed and properly put away, Violet was told about Lily.

There is some confusion to whether or not she took the news well. You see, tales of an unknown twin, particularly one of the earth, would make anyone reel. It was reported that Violet tore a blue streak through the white-capped water, causing men and women out swimming to race for shore and children splashing in the shallows to run crying for their parents. There’s nothing quite like watching a girl rise from the deep on unfamiliar legs and connecting with land for the very first time. Her hair swirled around her naked chest, and she staggered around as if drunk before falling to the ground.

It is said that Wanda watched hopelessly from the waves, unable to give chase, for she hadn’t an ounce of earth in her bones.

#

Tim told Lily not to fuss over him, but she did anyway, stoking the fire and pulling a stew together from items they kept in their root cellar. He felt a dampness the day Violet met the ground as if he was slowly filling with water. And if anybody could have seen inside his mind, they would have seen he was reminded of the day he arrived back on land, waterlogged and heartbroken.

“Can I bring you another blanket?” Lily asked, watching her father shiver in front of their fireplace.

“I’ll be fine, my dear, I promise,” he said, eyeing the moonless night out the window. “It’s just the changing of seasons.”

But Tim knew better than that, for he wasn’t inclined to shift with the weather. Not like Lily. Tim had spent the better part of fourteen years trying to keep her away from the systems that compromised her delicate balance. He’d seen what rainfall did when it fell in giant sheets as it was accustomed to doing in early autumn, turning Lily’s skin to scales. And he’d witnessed the way the drought of summer dehydrated her so badly dirt spilled from her pores, falling like dust to the ground. It is said Tim turned in much earlier than usual that night and roused Lily a few hours later, screaming about a woman named Wanda. Yelling about how he hoped he hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

If Lily had been honest with her father, she would have told him she wasn’t angry with him. That she felt Violet coming. That at some point, around the time she turned eleven, she’d decided there was something her father wasn’t telling her, the way he kept her shielded from the storms and away from the water his stories were filled with. Lily had never held a fish in her hands, yet Tim spoke of fishing with such love that she couldn’t fathom how they’d never been out together. Paintings of an underwater cave lay half-finished around their tiny living room, stacked like playing cards against the walls. And there was the braided bracelet he kept around his wrist, made of hair the same hue as Lily’s.

So, while Lily did not know of Violet, she was perhaps expectant of her arrival. And she sat at the kitchen table eating a second bowl of stew and watching her father sleep restlessly on the couch, waiting.

#

It is said the seaside town that hid Lily in its forested depths didn’t get much sleep once Violet graced their shores. A constant scream, resembling the way the wind might reverberate through an unsealed window, bled through the cobblestone streets and into the wooden cracks of everyone’s walls. The townsfolk gathered in droves, staring out at the water and searching for the origin of the noise. The blind woman who lived in the one-bedroom suite above the fabric store announced one afternoon, while fetching a day-old loaf of bread from the bakery, that, at regular intervals and with growing volume, she could hear a woman’s voice howling, one for you, and one for me, one for the land, and one for the sea.

Nobody contested that the voice was filled with sorrow. Even anger, maybe.

#

The hospital staff did their best with Violet, that much is known. They identified oversized lungs, underdeveloped leg muscles, and a succession of scars down both sides of her neck that were startlingly similar to gills. The head nurse with the short blonde hair and kingfisher tattoo up her left arm pressed Violet for more information, placing her hand on her forearm and telling her she could trust her. But, you see, Violet didn’t trust anybody. Not the boys who hung out near the shark holes taking bets on who would first draw blood, not the girls who strung pearls onto strands of seaweed and professed their offerings would catch your nightmares, and certainly not anyone in the town that had taken her sister.

It’s unknown whether it was Violet’s differences and her lack of wanting to talk about them, or the fact that she was a siren in the truest sense of the word, that had everyone around town back to talking about Tim. Tim, the man who had spilled out of the water. Tim, the man who had brought back a daughter.

Whatever the reason, they gathered together, hoping they’d be able to put a stop to the terrible longing that had been skipping over the surface of the water for the last twenty-four hours and propelled Violet far away, deep into the woods to where Lily sat looking out the window.

#

It is said there was an immense clap of thunder when the twin’s eyes locked through the dusty pane of glass, that it spooked some of the townsfolk who’d gathered. But nobody could confirm that for sure. There was a chilling in the air, that much is known, just before the rain fell; light at first, a misting, and growing until water poured unrelenting from the sky.

Tim woke to see this, it is thought, to catch sight of Lily standing a few steps from their front door. He ran out still heavy with sleep to drape a blanket around her, faltering when he saw Violet because Violet was the spitting image of Lily except there was a hatred in her eyes that couldn’t be escaped.

“Where is your mother?” he whispered.

“At home,” she responded. “Can’t you hear her howling?”

It is said Tim closed his eyes to tune out the gossiping and carrying on, so he could hear Wanda, and that’s when Violet whisked Lily away. But the woman who owned the flower shop, the one with the penchant for calla lilies and the truth, said it was Lily who grabbed Violet and ran. That she caught sight of them sprinting hand in hand along the trail heading toward town, that their hair spun together in a knot, bouncing behind them before disappearing from the glow of the porch light hanging outside Tim’s door.

Tim, of course, tried to follow. There wasn’t any way he was going to let his heart disappear into the ocean more than once in his lifetime. He thought he could convince the girls to stay with him on land, you see, that they could somehow start over down on the docks, maybe lease another float home where Wanda could join them, and he could start a fishing charter or deep-sea diving company. But he was fooling himself.

Because once you leave the sea, there’s no going back.

So, when Tim caught up to the twins at the water’s edge, yelling for Lily to just stop goddammit and listen to what he had to say, he didn’t mean to pull on Violet’s arm as hard as he did. And some would say Violet probably didn’t mean to twist up like she did, except maybe the nurse in the emergency room who’d felt her wrath when she misplaced the needle the first time.

Whatever the case, the town looked on as Violet and Lily spun together, until they were braided together as one human being overlooking their audience. Some would say Wanda’s crying became ear-shattering at that moment, and Tim, white as an oyster shell, looked out over the ocean, rolled up his jeans, and started walking into the depths. Of course, he didn’t make it far, falling to his knees and sputtering like a child. All he could do was watch as his daughters made their way, skin turning to scales before diving below.

#

It is said Tim leaves flowers at the shoreline every Friday morning. That he dines on sea urchins, oysters, and mussels while looking out at the waves rushing toward shore. It’s well known that Wanda sends letters to him most months, detailing what she’s been up to, without mention of their daughters. But Tim never reads them, that much is true. He just lays the paper on the water and watches it disintegrate.

<<< END >>>

 


Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2018 and is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_. 
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