Aquilo Vickery Makepeace, anatomy student, was looking for corpses when he found the undine.
It was late morning and blustery. The lighthouse at the end of narrow-necked Point Judith had been destroyed by the gale two days ago, and there she was in the wreckage, silt-drowned and weeping.
Quill could almost hear Babs recite, singsong, “You will know the daughters of the water by the storm that precedes them, by the waste that harrows close behind. Look for the gold on their ankles. Beware their tears. Beware their song.”
Storm — waste — weeping –by these specifications, the girl was doubtless an undine. That was, of course, if Quill believed in magical water elementals.
He was a scientist; he did not.
He breathed out. He adjusted the very little spectacles that perched on the bridge of his big beaky nose (“Women,” Babs had told him repeatedly, “will love you for your nose, but not for any reason that will please you.”) and straightened his neck cloth. He made up his mind to approach. He did not.
Quill had seen women’s bodies before. Dead ones. Well, once he had spied on Babs and Caddie, that afternoon by old Mossy Bowl back in Windham, but his twin sister and her school friend could hardly count, could they? Especially as he had caught just the barest flash of flesh, wet breast, round hip, before stealing their shimmies and hiding them under some rocks.
That was the sticky summer of 1813, the green pond, the midnight bonfires. Two years ago. Quill was grown now, shorn of the apron strings, eighteen years old and enrolled in the medical school at Brown, under crusty old Dr. Ingalls. He was no longer a boy.
These days, Quill could see only one purpose in a naked body, and for that, he preferred the male specimen, and a poor one, since it came in a flimsier coffin. Easier to pry open in the dead of night.
But this storm-tossed flotsam was definitely female. And alive.
Muttering, “Good Lord,” seemed insufficient.
Quill had ridden a borrowed nag all the way from Providence on rain-lashed roads: thirty miles of mud and uprooted tree and wide-eyed refugees. He had ignored them all. He had a purpose. To a student of anatomy, disaster on this scale was a sweet thing. It meant corpses. Fresh corpses. Corpses you didn’t have to dig for, or store in barrels, shamefully. They would just wash up to you on the shore, barely bloated.
Thinking to hunt away from home, he had come to Point Judith. Weeping women, eldritch or otherwise, simply weren’t in his plans.
And then she stood up from her keening. She had caught his eye. She was coming closer.
Quill recoiled slightly. Her dress, if you could call it that, was thin, cotton, damp. The sleeves were tight and short and the hem barely reached her knees. And it clung to her….
She was upon him.
“My brother!” she moaned, clutching Quill’s lapels and hanging from them, heavy as the albatross in Coleridge’s ballad. “My brother is out there! I was thrown from our boat. He cannot find me!”
She managed to spare one trembling hand to sweep the panorama of the Atlantic, the late September roil. Blue wine, storm wine. Her hair whipped and tangled around her, blacker than the clouds that still lingered hatefully about the horizon.
“We took our boat out, right before the storm!”
She pointed, and Quill couldn’t help noticing her hand. A fine set of phalanges. Skin a bit too brown. Slave blood? No. Maybe a touch of the Red Indian. A Narragansett Princess, torn from her tribe by the force of the storm. A wind dancer. A witch. Delicate in the carpals, perfect at the wrist, where ulna met radius. Had Quill dissected such a hand, he would never have forgotten it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His tongue felt thick; three syllables was an effort.
“You don’t understand!” she cried. “He is my twin! He is my twin and I hear him calling!”
That stymied him. Quill thought of his own twin. He could not, quite, imagine himself wailing for Babs in the wreckage of a wooden lighthouse, at the very tip of a ragged talon pointing east, sodden and alone. Babs had been born first. She would die last. That was what she always said, anyway.
His voice, when he found it, came out stuffy, as if he had salt up the nose.
“Do you, er, belong to a farm around here? Do you have parents…?”
The girl glared up at him. Her eyes were black, too, full of subtle lightning.
“We are orphans,” she said. “We live on that island….” She pointed again, at nothing Quill could see.
“On Block?” he asked. “You’re a New Shoreham girl?”
She shook her head, turning away from him.
“Marin!” she called. “Marin, my darling! Where are you?”
Her voice flew out over the waves like a white gull, wind-ripped.
For a moment, Quill thought he heard an answer. Like a flute, if flutes were made of bone, played by the breath of ghosts. Then — was that a name, her name, familiar and sweet, splashing up with the spume and the smell of rotting fish?
No. No name. No voices on the wind. Quill was growing fanciful on this broken shore, standing about like a bantling. Dreaming.
“Nothing for it,” he murmured.
Power, their father often said, was not in decision but in action. Quill took off his great coat. With the exactness, the almost-tenderness he afforded his cadavers, Quill placed the shabby brown coat over the woman’s gleaming shoulders. Her skin was slicker than he’d expected. Colder, too. A radiant cold. Peering closer, Quill imagined he could detect a pattern of golden scales. The woman twisted to scowl at him.
“You, boy,” she said. “Find me a boat. If Marin cannot come for me, I will go to Marin.”
Quill jutted out his chin. He often wished he had more of a chin. Physicians, he believed, required an air of absolute authority. A lantern jaw and a healthy pair of Mutton Chops would go a long way in addressing this.
“Miss Marinette.” Uneasily and with dignity, he addressed her by name, though he could not remember being introduced. Just a song on the wind, and her name on it. “I am a medical student. I know nothing about boats.”
“I do not.”
He did, of course. Quill was about as good with boats as he was with horses; he was better at bodies, but he could get by.
Now Marinette was pressing closer to him, now wrapping his coat around both their bodies, looking sly. How old was she? Fifteen? Five hundred? She smelled dank and fishy, like kelp.
(“To a fellow of your temperament, dearest Vickie,” Babs had written in a recent letter, apropos of nothing Quill could recall, “all women will smell too strongly of the sea.”)
“Please,” said the sea-stinking girl. “Please — my Marin is out there. Waiting. He is waiting on the boat, to take us back to the island.”
Impossible to breathe. Too much salt in the air, and grit, and anyway, trying to inhale this close to Marinette was like volunteering to drown and freeze at the same time.
Hypothermia, hypoxia, acidosis, Quill recited to himself, asphyxia, cardiac arrest….
“Find a boat,” she whispered, laying cold kisses on his collarbone. “Find me a boat, a boat, a boat, and row me to the sea….”
A gentleman ought not to look at a lady’s ankles. But, after all, Quill reasoned, he was foremost a student of science. And he felt the need to put at least an arm’s length of distance between himself and his… subject. So, pushing away, he looked at Marinette’s ankles, with their tendons and taluses and all that ankles implied. According to Babs’s hypothesis, if this girl came from an ocean kingdom, there would be a golden chain.
Golden links, ringing ‘round the slim bones like slave bells, a leash leading from her foot into the waves. Such that undines wore. Or any dangerous monster from the depths, bound by sorcery to a stronger will.
A quick, fiery thrill shot up his spine. In this one case, just for one day, he was willing to cede Reason’s victory back to the Occult. But how to proceed from here? He was lost.
“Please,” the girl was saying. “I beg you. Please. Help me, funny boy. Bird boy.” She tapped his nose. His spectacles wobbled in protest.
Then she was kissing him down his chest, loosening his cravat. Quill stood stock still, wishing himself back at Brown, safe in the upper story of University Grammar School, helping to prepare the lecture materials. Safe in the company of men. With Dr. Ingalls, who hated the commute from Boston, whose resignation was imminent. Even Dobbin Peebles and LaFayette “Fate” Crumpacker, neither of whom could tell a patella from a pelvis, would be a welcome sight. Someone to tear this desperate succubus away from his nipple….
Babs would know what to do, if she were here. How to put her off. How to help her.
“It’s simple,” Barbara Caroline Makepeace would say. “Find a blasted boat, Vickie, and don’t be such an ass.”
Quill would not be called an ass, even in the privacy of his own mind. He detached Marinette.
“Very well, Miss Marinette. I will help you find your boat,” he told her. “But do not expect me to row you anywhere.”
“Yes! Yes!” Marinette did a dance and punched her fists in the air. Those fine, sharp fists.
For the next three hours, she towed him up and down the coast, scouring the shore for any unravaged craft. The chain around her ankle permitted ten paces beyond the tide line, no farther, so mostly she stood with arms akimbo, giving orders while Quill did all the work. This felt obnoxiously familiar.
By the time they found a boat, half buried in the sand, the quarter moon was glowering through unhappy clouds. There were noises in the high winds. That flute again. The bone whistling.
Marinette hummed along. “A song our mother taught us,” she explained. She came more fully alive as darkness disintegrated the light, chattering happily as Quill inspected the boat for damage and tried to locate its oars.
“We are orphans, but we remember our mother. She was very tall, with a crown of diamonds. I look exactly like her, because we have a portrait. Mrs. Hamm’s pig-daughter tried to take it away from me, but I laid the spell of toads upon her, and after that, she let me be. Poor Marin said, Be kind to her. We owe her mother much. But I said, Let Miss Hepsibah vomit a warty toad for every warty word she speaks to me. You see, and I was right to do so! Not a year later, on our crossing from Saint-Malo, she threw me overboard into the sea! While her mother looked on, mind you. But I found wonders down there. And worlds beneath. They welcomed me and covered me in gold. It’s where I got my pretty chain.”
She stuck out her foot and wiggled it. Pausing in his huffy search, Quill stopped pretending to ignore her. He could not help admiring the purity, the beauty, of function. It was a graceful ankle. And how like her skin was the gold she wore. If only she would stop talking.
“Marin was very, very sad without me,” Marinette went on, “so by and by, he came down too. Perhaps the Pig-Daughter was making eyes at him. He would never say. But it is better now — for we are Queen and King of the Island, and we will never be parted again!”
Shaking his head, Quill stood up and brushed off his clothes. “Miss Marinette, this craft seems sturdy. Now, if you will pardon me — I have work to do and I am expected elsewhere tomorrow. It has been enlightening….”
But it had not been, really. It had been irritating. Exhausting. He ached and suffered, and for what? A criminal waste of time. He had not found his bodies. The waves refused to churn forth the silent, white victims of the gale. And he needed them. Not only for study, but also to supplement his income. He was paid handsomely (if in secret) from a “special flesh” fund for cadavers, and no one ever asked questions.
Marinette was smiling at him. She had a thin mouth, like a chimpanzee or the Mona Lisa, with lips so dark they were almost black. Her smile was cruel and impersonal and a little pitying.
“You will want to see the island.”
“No,” pronounced Aquilo Vickery Makepeace. “I most assuredly do not.”
“Oh, but you do,” she said. “For the island draws the bodies of the drowned. And I must pay you for your work today.”
Afterwards, Quill could not claim he had been enchanted, or under duress, or that his mind had snapped under her regard. Simply, her eyes, like the polished obsidian mirrors of Teotihuacán, had reflected his dearest desire. He must have his dead. He had come all this way.
So Quill rowed his undine out to sea in a little wooden boat.
The change came almost immediately.
There was a shift in the wind, a wash of glittering color, and the dark Atlantic swelled to meet the sky.
“Whoa,” called Quill, in the soothing voice Babs used for spooked horses. “Easy there.”
But the ocean paid no attention, and neither did the sky, lowering itself like a lover upon the waters, coaxing, moist and tropical. Above, the sullen storm shreds had flattened out, thickening until they gleamed like hammered gold. Whatever lit and limned them, Quill noted, it was neither sun nor moon, for the source came from below. Something large and glowing, in the sea.
Still rowing, Quill cast about for any evidence he was still on earth. His heart galloped like Revere’s stallion on the road to Lexington. His spectacles steamed up, ran with water, and slipped askew from the pressure of the air. There was a smell of salty honeysuckle, or something equally unlikely, and the taste of metal on his tongue. He rowed. His shoulders pulled and strained. His arms, like the rest of him, like beanpoles, were taut beneath his rolled up sleeves. Despite the windy warmth, his marrow felt frozen.
Marinette sat opposite him, her back turned. She hunched inside his coat, silent as a masthead. Only the ebony worms of her hair moved. And the entire Atlantic beneath them.
Then he glimpsed what lit the sky. It was there, behind the next sea wave: the pale island, a shining island. At the island’s summit stood a figure, which, having spotted their boat, descended to a luminous canoe beached on the shore below. The shore was jagged — not of stone or coral or sand. It resolved itself into shapes Quill knew well: vertebrae, scapulae, femurs, tibias, fibulas, ribcages, skulls….
The figure guided the boat off the bones, deeper into the water.
White-knuckled, clutching the oars, Quill watched.
What steered the shimmering canoe was like an engraving out of Cowper’s Anatomy of the Humane Bodies. Like Leonardo’s perfect man, but skinned. Quill could see every striation of muscle, the veins and bulges and tendons, unguarded sexual organs pink as milkwort, a weed that Babs referred to, with waggling eyebrows, as, “the Seneca Snakeroot.”
The figure stood just aft of the midships, one stripped foot propped up on the portside of the canoe so that Quill might observe the golden twin to Marinette’s shackle. His left hand was raised in greeting, or warding, or possibly supplication. His right hand was palm down and stretched taut, held a little behind him, as if for balance. He was bald. Worse than bald — scalped. His eyes, lidless, stared wide. Right at Marinette.
“Marin!” she cried, flinging aside her own paddle and jumping to her feet. Quill shouted as their boat rocked like a cradle.
Marinette paid him no heed. Her arms stretched out ahead of her as though she meant to fly from Quill’s wooden boat to her brother’s, which was of pearl and of alabaster, as beautiful a structure as its captain was hideous. Marin’s naked mouth gaped open. No sound came out. His stare was accusatory.
“He is nothing!” Marinette cried joyfully. “He is nothing — an ape, a slave, a gross thing clothed in flesh. You are my only darling!”
A playful breeze, so warm and humid that Quill would not have been surprised if it sprouted spontaneous flowers from airborne seeds, wafted the stink of rotting meat into Quill’s nose. It reminded him of the Anatomy Museum. It reminded him of his nocturnal excursions, his narrow miss last April with the night watchman…. It came from Marin.
The boat rolled, and the shock that had kept his breakfast tucked politely at the bottom of his belly gave way, and Quill had to hang his head over the edge of his boat and loose it back into the sea.
No more, no more, he begged through his retching. Quill could not bear the pitchings and tossings, the smell, the man with no skin, the sea-monster who laughed like a girl. He could not take one more minute of this terrible golden world. He was almost too miserable to notice Marinette catching him by the cravat and yanking him to his feet.
“He will serve us, my darling. He will tend the bodies and prepare them for your beautiful instruments. You will make a thousand flutes, and I will eat the flesh.”
Quill’s nose was fugged, his eyes blurred with tears, but one thing was clear in his mind: if he stepped from his shabby wooden boat onto Marin’s delicate and starry canoe, he would be lost. They would tie a golden chain around his ankle and bed him down in corpses. All the corpses he could want, body piled on body, limbs stiffening, skin sloughing, the heap of drowned men, drowned women, drowned gold, that made the Island. They would be his Queen and his King, and he would never go home again.
Born last, die first. Babs would be right, after all.
“She won’t!” he cried.
The shriek that ripped from his throat astonished but did not stop him. Quill pulled away from Marinette’s winding fingers, thrust out his arms and pushed, palms first, at Marinette. His palms connected with Marinette’s cold, stiff, little breasts, and he was aware of a faint, flash reaction in his groin right before she fell backwards. By this time, the white canoe was so near it scraped the side of Quill’s boat. The sound was like a saw cutting bone.
Marinette never touched the water. She lurched into her brother’s flayed arms, and he pulled her close to him, bloodying her cheek. She was sobbing, but her sobbing was so much like laughter, full of such hysterical relief, Quill could not spare attention to bother about it. He fell with a thunk, bruising his tailbone, grabbed up both oars and heaved. The paddles hit the water, and the sky shattered.
The black, black ocean roared.
Salt spilled into his mouth. A great, dark swell overtook Quill’s little craft, and he could feel his stomach rolling right out of his open mouth and plopping into the water. Sinking, sinking like a whaleship, like the angel Rahab who would not be tamed, right to the bottom of the world.
Quill was conscious of a deep disappointment, but he did not have time to pinpoint why.
He had swallowed the ocean. Now the ocean would swallow him. And he would rest.
“Vickie. Vickie, open your eyes.”
Light, the color of blood. Sound, like sand in his ears. Quill tried to speak, found himself convulsively swallowing water as soon as he opened his mouth. At least it was sweet and fresh, and did not taste of salt and death. When the glass touched his lips again, he shook his head. The red light shifted. The glass went away.
“Are you awake? At last?”
The voice rode roughshod over his feeble attempts to explain.
“What maggot ate your brains? Taking a boat, a little boat — not even your boat, Vickie! — Out there — all alone — after such a storm! Vickie, you chowderhead! You are lucky to be alive! You are lucky you washed up at all, and were found, and found by good folk and not… opportunists… like yourself!”
The voice, less sandy now and more familiar, squawked like a tame magpie.
“I was on that Island, with the dead,” he said.
The strident voice stuttered to silence.
“She wanted to eat me. He wanted my thighbone for his flute.”
“They were — like us.”
“Drowned.” Quill shifted on his pillow. He was thirsty again, but everywhere, as if his body were one parched throat. His sister’s hair was too red; it scraped his crusty eyes. “You would have understood her, Babs. You would’ve… done better.”
“Hush, Vickie,” said his sister, more gently, mollified. “You did all right. You came back.”
Quill must have made some involuntary sign of dissent, for Babs placed her hand on his head. Quill could feel the shape of it blossom inside his skull. A good hand. A bit blunt, large-knuckled, dry, with calluses from needlework, riding horses without gloves, handling oars in the sticky deeps of summer. Like his. Like his own. He groped for it, found it restless near his hair, pressed hard.
He tasted salt on his lips. One splash, then another, coming from above.
Babs had been right — all women carried the sea. Where they walked, so would the undine. Where they dwelled, so would the Island. And Quill would always live among them, skinless, nerves naked to the storm and the salt and the song on the wind.
“Don’t let her take me back. Don’t let her take me down.”