While my publishing service figures out their technical difficulties, I’m releasing the first story in ELECTRIC TREES! I hope that you enjoy it, and I can’t wait until the book is finally ready to be released so you can read more of the tales contained within.
It started in a bath, of course.
She laughed the first time, thinking how as a child, she’d stayed in baths until they ran icy cold and her mother was screaming from the kitchen for her to get the hell out already. She could still feel the chill of disappointment as she’d step shivering into the air, little fingers all pruned up, no scales or tail to be seen where her thin child’s legs stood dripping beneath a scratchy towel.
But the edge of the gill wasn’t on her leg; it was on her side, a little above her hip. That laugh had caught in her throat as she examined what was, after several moments, undeniable. After she’d dried herself off, it had seemed to fade. The following evening, though, the gill was there once more, joined by a twin on the opposite side of her torso, resting peacefully beneath the bath water. And she knew for certain then, although she was admitting nothing yet.
Two to start, then four, and then finally six slits, three on either side of her body, and she had to acknowledge that this would be the start of something she had hoped for as a child and never expected would visit her in womanhood, whether she was ready for it or not.
* * *
Every day on her way to and from work, she passed a lake house. It wasn’t large, and she might never have noticed it except for the fact that it had a long, meandering path that led up to its front door, which was dark wood and seemed to reflect passing shadows and light like the surface of a lake itself.
The lake on which the house stood was not very large; it would have been considered more of a pond had it not been so deep. But the water was far from shallow, and the willows and other trees edging the surface seemed to shade it black, such that knowing what was below would be impossible without some applied source of light.
She hadn’t gotten close enough to know all of this right away. She merely passed by each day as she walked to and from her job, until the evening came when she worked late and as such, caught a glimmer of light on her way home.
She approached hesitantly, feeling nosy and awkward, wondering why she should be so curious about a place that had nothing to do with her. She thought perhaps this was what it was like when you had a secret, a strangeness about you. By then, the gills that would appear in the bath were the least impressive change in her. The tail that had started to form each evening could be considered nothing less than majestic as it shone even in the dull light of the energy-saving bulbs above her bathroom sink. Even in her excitement, she had no one to tell, no one who could know this amazing new thing about her.
Perhaps people with secrets began to seek out the secrets of others, so that their own existence might feel less lonely.
The light was in motion, slow but almost bouncing, and as she drew close and passed by the side of the house, she caught its reflection and realized it was above the water. And then, she was close enough to see that its source was a lantern, held by an outstretched hand.
The old woman who walked on the surface of the lake stopped in her tracks, sensing an audience. She turned slowly, then nodded her head, the coils of white and grey hair not reflected in the water below, though they, too, shone in the lantern light. And the longer they gazed at one another, the less of a crone the woman looked; there was a lightness within that matched the brilliance she held in her hand, an ageless glow that came with a joyful knowledge about the self that one indulged in, protected and kept.
What could she say? She had stolen a secret; now, all that was left to do was for her to share her own. She slowly approached the lake, not yet ready for such deep waters as seemed to lie before her, and lifted her shirt over her head. Then she took two palmfuls of water and drenched her sides until gills flared open and the beginning of scales were shining in the glow of the lantern.
The old woman smiled. “Come back tomorrow,” she said from the middle of the lake, then turned back around, content to stand vigil amidst the gentle waters lapping at her ankles.
* * *
She returned the next day as instructed. The old woman opened the door without her knocking, although it was early and she’d been wondering if she shouldn’t have come after work instead of before.
“I’ve made tea,” her hostess said, clearing away any worries that she’d arrived too soon.
They sat together in silence as the old woman carefully prepared two steaming cups. The cobalt blue of the glass mugs seemed a joke between them, though neither laughed aloud.
Finally, she decided that since she hadn’t said a word yet, it was time to do so. “What are we?” she asked.
“Women, it would seem.” A wry smile accompanied the response, and now the two of them did laugh together.
“You know what I meant.”
The old woman tilted her head. “I do, but it’s not the right question. We are not the same.”
She nodded; that much was evident. Water gave her a tail, invited her to dwell within it. But it lifted the woman across from her up, denied her its depths and instead offered safe passage across its rippling surface.
“Okay,” she amended, “why are we?”
“Why don’t we begin with an introduction?” the old woman suggested. “That seems easier.”
She nodded again, sipping at the tea to show that she didn’t want to go first.
“I’ve taken to calling myself Yarelis.”
The phrasing of this introduction wasn’t lost on her, and she paused, not wanting to hear from this woman with whom she shared secrets the name that was used on her in the office, by clients, by ex-lovers, by people with whom she shared nothing at all.
“I’m Sirena,” she said.
“Of course you are.”
* * *
After a week of such visits, Yarelis offered Sirena a room in the lake house.
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” Sirena began, though her heart had given a hopeful jump at the idea of living in the beautiful house.
“This is a large place for one person to live. Besides, you have more questions than I can answer. The lake has offered me some explanations, exhaustive though they are not. It might help you understand the things you want to know, at least more than you do now.”
Sirena said she’d think about it over the weekend and make a decision after that. What she did when she returned to her apartment was begin packing the few things she might care to take with her almost immediately. It didn’t mean she was definitely going, she told herself. It just meant that if she did decide to accept Yarelis’s offer, she’d be ready by the time the week started.
In the midst of folding some clothing into a suitcase, the door to the apartment swung open.
She said nothing, simply stopped in the middle of what she was doing to stare at him.
“What? You don’t look happy to see me.” As though he were entitled to the apartment with a lease on which he’d chosen not to put his name, Karl threw down his backpack and crossed his arms, frowning at her.
“You were gone for ten months,” she told him, then went back to folding the shirt she had in her hands.
“So? I told you I was following the work.” He walked over to her and looked down at the suitcase. “And where are you going?”
“How is that any of your business?”
“What’s your problem?” he snapped, grabbing her by the arm.
This was why she’d hoped he’d gone for good. Shoving him off her, she thought with regret that she’d never changed the locks on the front door. “You don’t live here, Karl—that’s my problem.”
“Is your name on the lease?”
He glared at her. “You were always so fucking clingy. Suffocating and clingy.”
“Yeah,” she laughed bitterly, “wanting to know where my boyfriend is for months on end is super-clingy.”
“I didn’t come back here for this.” He stalked over to the kitchen, threw open the refrigerator door, and started guzzling the orange juice she’d bought herself for the week.
Sirena started to argue, and then suddenly, a calming passivity took hold of her. There was no need for her to argue, the feeling said. She did not have to say anything at all. It wasn’t giving in, she realized: it was letting go, and it pulled at her like a tide dragging away everything she didn’t need, leaving only a desire for peace behind.
She looked into the suitcase. So far, she’d managed to pack a week’s worth of clothes, a towel, two pairs of shoes, and a book of short stories that she’d always wanted to read but had never gotten around to starting.
It was more than she needed.
She threw her small purse into the suitcase, zipped it shut, then lifted it and made for the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded in her wake. “Hey, I’m still talking to you!”
She didn’t turn around until she was several feet from the front door, in clear view of the adjacent apartments. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “There’s another two weeks left on the place. You can stay until then.”
“What are you talking about?” he hissed, not leaving the threshold of the front door as he glanced around.
She knew he’d be afraid to draw the attention of the neighbors, and she smiled. “After you were gone a few months and I’d heard nothing from you, I had my landlord change me over to a month-to-month lease. I don’t have to pay anything beyond the next two weeks, and he can take the place back after that.”
She left him there in the doorway, clenching his fists in a helpless rage. But really, the decision had been made for her. It wasn’t like she could let Karl know her secret. It wasn’t as though she wanted to.
The light from Yarelis’s lantern guided her the final steps of the way. It was hanging on a small rod next to the front door, as though waiting for her arrival.
* * *
The days passed quietly at the lake house. In exchange for help cleaning and cooking, Yarelis granted Sirena a beautiful bedroom that overlooked the lake and as much good food as she wanted to eat. They didn’t speak often, living side by side in a peaceful understanding that while they weren’t the same, as Yarelis had said, they were kin of a kind, bound together by the waters that made each remarkable in her way.
The bathroom adjacent to the room where she slept had a huge, deep tub in which Sirena delighted. She would linger there for hours at a time, curled comfortably within the waters, her tail with plenty of room to unroll itself. There was not a moment that passed where she missed the old apartment, which had never felt like a home in the way this tub did.
Yarelis only entered the room once while Sirena was bathing. She smiled up at the older woman to demonstrate how happy she was.
“I’m glad you like it,” Yarelis said, “though I wonder why you’ve never tried the lake.”
And she hadn’t, as of yet. There was something foreboding about the idea of allowing herself to be, to sit fully in her secret outside of a shut-away room, beyond an enclosed space with four solid walls and shut doors. She looked out over the black rippling waters from her windows every day, but she knew she wasn’t ready to dive into them.
Without her saying anything, Yarelis seemed to understand. “I began in bathtubs, too,” she told her in a gentler voice. “But don’t stay in here forever, or I’ll stop calling you Sirena and start calling you Melusine.”
Although Sirena didn’t understand, she dipped back beneath the water with a smile still on her face, gills widening and narrowing in a contented rhythm.
* * *
They continued discussions, often over tea, about who they were. Mostly, the conversations were Sirena’s musings and Yarelis’s insistence that she had no answers. What she did have, however, was a sprawling library on the ground floor of the lake house, directly beneath Sirena’s room.
There, Yarelis had collected books on merfolk, sirens, selkies, naiads, and every other water-dwelling creature that was not supposed to exist. But now Sirena knew for sure that at least two of them did.
And while Yarelis offered no commitment to Sirena’s hypotheses about how many others like them might exist, where they could be, and why they had come into being, she would sometimes reference these many works as a means of tidying her companion’s more wild guesses.
“There’s only one way to know for sure whether there are more to be found,” she finally said one night.
“What’s that?” Sirena asked, though deep down, she felt she knew.
“To swim into wider waters and see for oneself.”
* * *
It was days before Sirena felt brave enough to consider what Yarelis had said. It was weeks before she drew up the courage to go forward into those waters. And in those weeks, her tail grew stronger and more majestic than ever, its scales glittering like gems beneath the still waters of the tub, a tub which, Sirena now realized, looked like more of a container that held her back than the instrument of joy she had once felt it to be.
Finally, the day arrived when she felt strong enough to tell her companion that it was time for her to step out of the house and into the lake it looked out over, to plunge into those black waters and see what lay beneath and beyond.
Yarelis smiled. “Tonight, then. I will go as far as I can with you.”
It wouldn’t be very far, Sirena knew, but she was glad that she would have company.
The night was not warm, and as they made their way outside, she considered turning back. Yarelis said softly, “You already know what’s behind you.”
Sirena continued forward, breathing through lips that were already beginning to turn blue.
Yarelis had brought her lantern, and though the cold air was upon them both, it offered a kind of warmth through radiance. Sirena turned her gaze towards it as she slipped out of the jeans and shirt she’d been wearing, then took steps into the high grass and reeds along the edge of the water.
Crickets sang happily, an owl hooted its presence from a nearby tree, and fireflies challenged Yarelis with intermittent brightness in the air above the lake. A thin crescent of a moon gleamed gently in the clear and cloudless sky. Sirena took a final breath of the night air, then dove forward.
The water of the lake was even colder than she’d expected, and immediately, she was glad that the change in her had produced more than just a tail. After repressing the chattering of her teeth for a moment, she found the urge to shiver left her as soon as her scales had come fully forward. Then, there was a soothing feeling of being home, of finding herself for the first time, of knowing she was where she ought to be.
She surfaced, found new gills above her collarbone, gleaming scales down both of her arms, and realized that her friend had been right: she had not allowed herself the fullness of her own existence in the tub. She looked up to see Yarelis smiling down at her, and, as she’d looked on that first evening out in back of the lake house, it was as though years had been lifted from her face as one foot and then the other extended out and onto the water, steps as easy and light as though she were walking across a stretch of carpet or moss on a low rolling hill.
The lantern light was bright and flickering, a joyful flame that partook of the bliss Sirena had found in these waters. They were brackish, she realized, and her fins told of a current that led out into a nearby river that would carry her towards the sea. She had a moment of fear, dreading the unknown, but then she realized: it was far worse to remain a shade of oneself than to risk swimming into new waters.
Her last glance up at Yarelis was through a clear second eyelid that promised she would not be swimming blindly forward. And Sirena realized that the lantern, with its reflected radiance bouncing on the gentle waves between them, was one of two sources of light in the water: the other came from her, from the bioluminescent glow of her own scales. She dove down into the black depths of the lake, her friend’s lantern lighting the way until Sirena found the outlet into the river. Then all that was left to guide her was the light she carried as this, the truest iteration of herself.