Even if the water level is low, the water isn’t clear enough to reveal the creature that casts the dark shadows by the bank. It might be fish turning beneath the water; instead these sleek dark bodies are Jenny Willow’s hands and her hair, tangling beneath the water like a mare’s nest from a nightmare, sharp and quick and hungry.
I swerve around the sandbank, pulling myself through a warm trill of water, digging my fingers into the gummy sand and keeping an eye on Jenny Willow. If she doesn’t leave, I will pull myself back to my own pool. Pegmell might be lying, I might have been made foolish by living further away from the Borders.
Here where Cypress Creek bends past the Pale Queen’s lands there are hungry Jennies along her borders, sometimes visible out of the corner of your eyes as you walk through the park. Jenny Willow’s [twisting] shadows thrust up in to the small tree leaning over the water. She pulls herself up and then dangles from her hands, flinging herself toward a sharp cut in the bank. Her thin form stretches like a splash and then she’s gone.
I slip along the sand, the green water blank around me. Despite a pool close to the river, I am hungry enough to eat a frog. Pegmell brought a brief respite from the hunger in the granite gnaw-rocks with which she lured us past the border. Mine fell beside me like a fat frog and I had caught it and tossed it away from water before my fingers registered the solid texture. Frogs bring out the vicious in the Jenny; they are the family we are forced to keep.
I pulled myself from the water, lifting the veil from my eyes and letting them gleam over the bank. Our flesh is more than our skin, of course. The water itself is part of our flesh, an inside-out pulse. I am both naked and flayed in the heat.
The smell of her and her rock had already disturbed my pool, however. She might as well have tossed in a basket of frogs. My stomach rumbled. We never eat our leaping brethren; it’s like chewing on a bit of your own skin. They remind me of our true prey, though. People are rare in this water, rarer at night and early morning, when my eyes are clear and bright enough to lure them close to the water.
Pegmell came up the dying branches of Cypress Creek for those of us who might be suffering from the lack of water. I can follow her scent on this rock. The idea of something that is too secret to be spoken through the dragonfly whispers and yet is urgent enough to risk throwing rocks at your cohorts intrigues me.
Her meeting is well inside the Pale Queen’s borders, in a shallow milky cataract of a pool edged with iris and mined with turtles. I can feel the eyes of the snakes and others following me from the leaf litter and the branches. Open space is best for her business.
I keep my calves in the water so that I am less naked than I feel. It is not my pond and the pulse of the dyed water faint. It tastes like the pipes from which it came. The other Jennies are pulled up around Pegmell, leaning against the iris swords.
Until Peg speaks, her azure eyes dominate the tan and green mottle of her skin. The deep brown of her lips merely underline those eyes. Drowning eyes.
“Did you know that these are what Arthur took, what he was offered by the first Jenny, the Queen of the pond. A sword green and sharp. No one comes for our swords or our help anymore,” Pegmell begins.
Pegmell is still smiling at us. Her mouth tugs her eyes just beyond the edge of her face and I wonder if she has learned to taste us dry, as she has learned to breath and speak abovewater. My own tongue twists and I bite down, leaning over the water.
“I imagine that she lived in the robes of a princess, that she was perhaps the sister of the man on the bank. She gave power to her brother and he lost the way, the way every way has been lost to us. We are more frog than man, and more viper than frog.” Her lips curl above her teeth.
I blink and find myself pushing down into the water. The others move closer to her. She glances my way and I am careful to keep my mouth above water. I want a name and I think that I could be less solitary. Sharp teeth pin my mouth closed. The iris swords bend to my fingers and the tips point for a minute toward Peg. Am I less alone here?
Jenny Bog shake a dragonfly from her shoulder. There will be no tales today. Jenny Cypress catches it with her tongue and swallows whatever tales it had. I lick the stone that Peg gave me--each of us is holding a bit of the limestone.
None of us are blooming and Peg’s skin is dry. Her arms curl around her knees and her toes grasp the concrete edge. Every thin flap of skin has been abraded away. Each digit is separate. I find myself sliding closer, like the turtles that bump against me and crawl over the small of my back toward the sun. My skin aches at the sight of hers.
Pegmell’s voice throbs softly over us. “The dwarves remember the same things, the way that their work was taken. Always for compensation...but it became hordes and rumors and handiwork became...unheimlich. When I found one of them standing at the edge of an old cenote, I almost pulled him into the water.”
“Tell us what becomes of our places when we leave?” Jenny Cypress asks.
“You won’t care. These are places that you wait, like a chrysalis for tadpoles. You will have other places with others of us. There are no bad stories of the homes which you will find.” Pegmell stopped.
“With dwarves?” Jenny Silver Maple asks?
“There are other creatures that you will meet. There are homes that come with the gnawing stones and others that come with a few bones. You can abandon the prejudices of kept creatures.” Pegmell spoke to those who lived in the park, not to those of us who were further away.
“Not all of us are protected by the Lady,” I murmured.
“There is no protection here. Are you protected by staying the same? By believing that you are capable only of drowning and eating the world from which you’ve come? You had mothers who were not part of the park, not behind the border that your fathers hid behind. There is no court here that will give you more than a sentence of eternal hunger.”
“We can find our mothers?” Jenny Bog stood, revealing the tangles of skin still clinging to her waist. She was still shedding into her form.
“I’m offering a chance to make a home for yourself. I’ve seen the King’s Riders pause when he saw us at the side of the dwarf Robert. They saw that we were the same kind of honor, the same fealty was offered to Robert as the King expects. We are no longer Jennies or kelpies or dark promises. We are capable of it. What we want from our heritage we will take.” Pegmell kept us deep in her gaze.
A braver creature might have chosen to take what she implied was there, but my character had coldness and treachery as well. Limestone sparked against my tongue but I was thinking of clouds of blood drifting through the water, tasting the human dissolved in the water, the way it should be. Child of lies, if not violence, I was the daughter of a frog prince and a human woman. I was the pearl who survived.
Smoke doesn’t frighten me the way it does the others. My pool is ringed by cigarettes and the smoke above the waves soothes me. Here in the horns of the Pale Woman in the wind that is for a moment her hair and then air again, the crazy sparks of lightning bugs struck from her bone, from her fingers, light the page longer than their mother, the lightning bolt.
After cracking the spine of the notebook, I’m ready to put down the confession, to ask for a pool in the Woman’s protection, to betray Pegmell’s silence.
I have little hope for this. Pegmell asked no permission to break the bonds of the court, gave no gifts to our people for taking us from our pools.
She was released by the dwarf so many years ago, she’s seen the hidden and the mud and the places were even the humans dive naked back into the water without giving in to her hunger. How could she remember the reflexes of custom and propitiation? Remembering them, would she count it wise to act on them?
My stomach rolls with the idea of people jumping freely into the water. I am licking my own fingers, Pegmell’s rock has been gnawed into a dry powder and a worry stone that rolls between my fingers like a lost thought.
A scream leaps up behind me. The Woman turns, her white skin shining in the rain. A slim dragon slides backwards down the slick limbs, catching at thin vines and a shallow canopy.
It sprawls before us, eyes whirling. “Mushrooms rise!” it growls and then laughs. Smoke curls from its nose and a gathering of wet frogs and spiraling caterpillars and draggled moths converge on the curling breaths.
She, the Queen who has imprisoned me in her own horns to ride out the this thunderstorm, she takes a deep breath and presses her roots deeper into the sweet soil. We sway with the breaking of the deadly drought.
The princes, the frogs, leap and glisten. I lean over and cast the notebook into the maw of the dragon. Horns catch the delicate skin fronds as I slip down, jumping toward the smoke and darkness.
I land on the startled snout and run, letting the harsh forest pull the water from me.