Men drowned in these depths. Their bodies fed the fish and fungi, and the forest thrived in turn. Women had a different fate. They transformed into something else, something cold and slimy and not entirely human.
Everyone who looked at her saw a boy. But the water recognized her for who she was.
The first time she sees the lumberjack, she dives underwater. She doesn’t need air anymore, though she clings to the act of breathing like so many other things from her old life. The light is distorted down here. Floating pieces of algae and lichen glint in the sluggish ripples like disgraced stardust.
The lumberjack sits under the biggest willow tree by the pond and unfolds his lunch. He sings a folk song to himself, each husky note filling her empty lungs with nostalgia. His axe rests by his side, and leather straps hold his oversized bundle of kindling together.
When he shoulders his pack again, ready to leave, she emerges from the water. It’s only for a second. Only to take one more look, because she hasn’t seen another person in more than two moons. He swivels around, and she sinks back underwater with barely a splash.
This is it then, an aberrant event, rare as a black moon. Yet the next day he is back under the same willow, his long legs spread out on the grass as he unwraps his lunch from its flannel cloth.
“You can have some, if you want,” the lumberjack says.
Her heart, cold as pond sludge and slow as a spider weaving its web, beats faster for the first time.
He places the checkered cloth on the mossy ground before him. When she doesn’t reveal herself, he stands up with measured movements and dusts off his hands. She watches from behind a craggy rock formation as he leaves. Half his lunch remains behind. For the longest time, she doesn’t move. It could be a trap, like the hidden snares hunters leave in the wood for hares and quails. When hours pass and he doesn’t return, she scrambles out of the water and drags herself across the crabgrass to snatch the lumberjack’s offering.
The only food she’d had for weeks is small fish and edible plants that scratch her still-sore throat on their way down. Now, she devours the hard rye bread and soft goat cheese. By the time she finishes the last bite, the water on her face is saltier than usual thanks to her tears.
When the lumberjack returns the next noon, she decides to reveal herself, because fear should have no place with the not-quite-living. The strange interloper has russet hair, a sparse beard that speaks of his young age, and eyes that match the forest’s ambient viridescence. He doesn’t seem the least surprised when she hoists herself onto the bank. Water drips off her. Her hair, grown past her shoulders, sticks to her gray-hued skin in matted, dark tendrils.
“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” she asks, flinching at the roughness of her voice.
“My Babulya, rest her soul, told me many stories in my childhood. Most were about the rusalki, the drowned maidens. She’d met one, in her youth. Couldn’t stop talking about her even on her deathbed.”
And because he called her a maiden, and he talks with such tenderness about his late grandmother, she doesn’t dive back into the water right away.
“My name is Tolya,” he says. “What’s yours?”
Tolya. Anatoly. Sunrise. She looks at him, with his kind eyes and slow, easy smile. A fitting name.
In that moment, she names herself, or rather speaks the name she always used to fear would break through. The name that always echoed in the safety of her head loud and clear. “Nadja. I am Nadja.”
He bows low before her. His smile is the sun peeking through the dense tree cover. “It’s so very nice to meet you, Nadja.”
Tolya treks to Nadja’s clearing when he isn’t turning felled trees into logs and kindling. The late summer days might still be mild, but winter likes to catch folk unawares. It’s backbreaking work, which Tolya does on his own since his father’s death last summer. Yet he keeps coming back day after day, bringing with him food and songs and stories.
Nadja thought she hated the people of her village, who used to mock the softness of her speech and mannerisms. Now, she finds herself leaning forward to listen better to Tolya’s voice. Each word hammers a nail of yearning into her breastbone. He must notice the change in her whenever he mentions the village, because one day he gently asks, “Who do you wish to know about?”
She swallows hard the brackish water residue and says, “Everyone.”
So Tolya talks about the baker’s daughter, who gave birth to a healthy baby girl; the florist, who eloped with the blacksmith; the children who dyed the elderly Mrs. Frolova’s chickens red using a paste of honey and paprika.
Sighing, she flings her arms out and lies on her back, swimming circles around the pond. The nightgown she stole from her mother billows around her. Its bobbin lace gone from pure white to bile-yellow. Water crawls into her ears, mantling every sound. Although the forest used to bring her peace when nothing else did, Nadja misses the frantic loudness of her village, the dogged peddlers and disgruntled housewives, the children and animals running in the streets. Here, not even the birdsong can penetrate the blanket of hush falling over everything.
She swims another slow lap. When she reaches the willow again, dipping its tear-shaped fronds into the water, she forces the words out of her throat. “What about the Zamolodchikova widow?”
She makes her voice buoyant, but she cannot hide the burn of longing in her eyes. Her mother, Aleksandra Zamolodchikova, is the only one left in their family. She used to make Nadja get down on her knees and pray the things that made her different would disappear with morning light. Despite this, guilt spears Nadja for forcing her mother to mourn her only child. It temporarily eclipses her ever-present anger, directed at anyone she can think of.
Early on, she made Tolya promise not to ask her any questions about who she was or how she ended up here. Tolya keeps his word, as she knew he would. He speaks about her mother in the same even cadence he used while discussing the rest of the villagers.
The next day, however, he says, “Promise you won’t be angry.”
Callused fingers peel back his usual handkerchief. A pained moan flies out of Nadja’s lips as she recognizes the bread inside, pan-fried to a golden crisp by her mother’s practiced hands.
“What did you do?” Nadja asks, even as she grabs the potato-stuffed flatbread, rubbing it over her lips to makes sure it’s real.
“I paid a visit to the Zamolodchikova house after our talk yesterday. Fixed the broken roof shingles for when the rains come. Mrs. Zamolodchikova was kind enough to treat me to some khychiny.”
Nadja bites into the savory bread, as flaky and lightly salted as she remembers. Tolya’s eyes watch her with an intensity that should have been terrifying to her, who was always in hiding.
“Forgive me if I overstepped,” he says. “I know it’s not my place, but—”
She throws herself into his arms and squeezes, because she can’t help the overflow of emotion. The cotton of his shirt smells of pine needles. His heart barrels away inside his lean-muscled chest. He hugs her back just as tightly, as if to say he doesn’t care about the frigid slime, the brackish stink, or the moss growing on the hem of her ragged nightdress.
Over Tolya’s shoulder, Nadja glimpses the slivers of sky peeking out between the trees. The day is still clinging on to the last vestiges of light, but the rich color of iron gall ink is never far from the horizon.
“It’s a full moon tonight,” she whispers. “Please stay.”
Tolya returns to the village to pick up supplies while Nadja floats in her pond, unmoored. A restlessness worms its way inside her. She curls in on herself mollusk-like, wanting to be shielded from the Barley Moon’s probing, too-bright light. There was a full moon across the sky too when she first stepped into the pond wanting to disappear from the world. Its cratered face, akin to a freshly plowed field, remains imprinted behind her eyelids.
Tolya, hurry back. After all this time, she isn’t entirely convinced he will. She wouldn’t blame him if he decided to stay away for good.
When Tolya returns, he carries in his sinewy arms blankets and kindling, vodka and meat-and-cabbage piroshki. He arranges everything under their willow with immense care. Nadja makes to climb out of the pond and join him, but Tolya shakes his head. She cannot read the thicket-tangle of emotions on his face. Yet for once, she isn’t afraid of the unknown.
Tolya removes his soft leather boots, shirt, and woolen pants. Eyes fixed on hers, he steps toward the pond, through the green loam. He waits for her permission, and she nods, though perhaps someone better would have said No, don’t waste your future on me. Nadja quiets the disparaging voices in her head while Tolya lowers himself into the water. The muscles of his back ripple as he dives below, then emerges again inches away from Nadja. He shakes off the water from his igneous red hair, and a few stray droplets land on Nadja’s lips. Her tongue gathers the waterdrops inside her mouth as if they are precious pearls. Then Tolya’s lips press against hers. Warm, so warm, and soft. He holds her, and they swim together, twirling round and round under the moonlight’s burnished brume.
Afterward, while Tolya lights a fire, she gathers wild raspberries from a nearby bush to surprise him. It’s the farthest she’s ventured away from the pond. She places some of the red, ripe fruits on his palm, an offering of her own. Smiling, Tolya drapes one of the blankets over her shoulders, and they share the piroshki and berries between them. The flames breathe hot, dry air against her prickled skin, melting the numbness from her chilled bones. Nadja had stopped noticing the cold. However, with the fire warming her inside and out, returning to the pond water later will be torture. The thought of the coming winter makes her shiver down to her tailbone.
“Why are you crying?” Tolya’s wood-gnarled fingers glide over her damp cheeks with the gentlest ghost of a touch.
“Because I regret trying to end my life, and now I’m caught in this limbo, like the hell my mother always feared for me. You being here… It changes everything.”
It feels good to let it all out, to scream and break the quiet of the forest. All this time, she hasn’t properly mourned herself and her old life. Nor has she allowed herself to fully succumb to the undercurrent of anger. Toward her mother, her God, and everyone else who led Nadja to this forest.
“I should have told you earlier, but… I remember you,” Tolya says. “From before.”
Nadja pulls away. The bitter memory of the boys back at her village floods her senses. All the ones who would approach her were chasing something swift and dirty. They wanted to be with her in secret, but refused to accept her for who she was in the light of day. And Nadja let them. She had craved human contact, even if it was only thirty stolen minutes in the woods and a deluge of ridicule around the village afterward.
“No, let me explain,” Tolya pleads, and the sincerity in his voice stops her in her tracks. “I saw you once, in the forest. I was twelve or thirteen, one of my first times picking firewood alone. You were in a clearing, much like this one. You thought you were alone, so you sang to yourself as you wove wildflowers through your hair. Every time our paths crossed in the village after that day, I saw you. The girl with the flowers.”
She remembers. Cerulean forget-me-nots and dainty chamomiles falling out of much-too-short hair, another dress stolen from her mother’s drawers, and the hope that maybe, one day, someone would see her the way she saw herself.
Nadja melts back against Tolya. Ηe strokes her hair, and places a flower behind her ear. It’s blue and fragile, but tenacious enough to grow in unlikely places. Under the caving willow boughs, he tells her about his father and how he taught Tolya to cleave wood for the fire. How Tolya and the rest of the village men had to haul his father’s corpse free from underneath the cedar trunk that crushed him. And how one might forget the pain for a while, before one sinks into sleep and after one has just emerged from it, but the void never really goes away. Again, Nadja thinks about dead parents and children. About mourning.
Although she has trouble sleeping when the moon is full, she drifts off, wrapped snug and safe in Tolya’s arms until morning.
Tolya doesn’t come.
Nadja swims. She catches minnows and crappies and sleeps at the bottom of the pond so the moonlight’s silvered beams don’t flay her open. She sits under the willow tree and imagines the dripping leaves’ caress against her face is the back of Tolya’s beloved hands.
On the third day he returns. The sun is gone from his eyes, replaced by a cloud cover thicker even than the forest’s insulation. Nadja’s heart is preternaturally still inside her ribcage. Of course. He’s here to tell her that they can never meet again, the madness has passed and he’s realized he cannot be with her after all. Tolya immediately reaches for her hand. She could sob from relief. Yet the doubts still gnaw even as his fingers clasp hers.
“Nadja, we need to talk.”
Her stomach is a fathomless pit. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ll be going away before the first snow. I received a letter from my mother’s side of the family. They want me to move to the city, closer to them.”
“No…” she utters. Every other word fizzles out on her tongue, bubbles popping toward the surface while she sinks, she sinks.
Grief strikes Tolya’s face. His mouth pinches into a shape that looks impossibly small. “You know how lonely I’ve been ever since my father’s death. Earning a living has been tough. I have no family here.” His gaze becomes imploring. “No one but you.”
“So this is goodbye then.” Nadja remains as unstirring as her pond, with every emotion swirling and surging under the surface.
“No!” Tolya squeezes her hand in his big, warm palm. “Come with me.”
“I can’t… Don’t ask this of me. Just don’t.” No matter how much she’s tried to distance herself from fear, it always seems to follow her like a dog snapping at its own tail.
“Remember the first time we met? I told you about my grandmother’s stories of the rusalki. You can leave your pond and survive, as long as you always keep close to a body of water, any kind will do. And the city is so big. You can get lost in it, and nobody will bother you. My grandmother and her companion made a life for themselves there for decades. They were happy together. Why can’t we?”
Nadja bites her lip hard enough to draw watery blood. All the moons she’s stayed in this limbo-like clearing, she never once tried to leave her pond. And why should she? She still remembers the villagers’ cruel contempt; her mother begging Nadja to suppress whatever made her different, therefore vulnerable; the two of them praying together until their knees ached. What is there to guarantee things will be different in the city Tolya speaks of? The water changed her in some ways, but in others she remains the same as before.
The pond is glacial, algae-smothered, and treacly, but she was numb to it before Tolya arrived. The water offered her freedom, and it asked for nothing in return. But she knows the world won’t be satisfied until it breaks her like a sapling in the howling gales.
“You don’t understand.” Nadja pushes Tolya’s hands away. She tries to ignore the way her words snuff out the light from his sunrise eyes. “You should have never come here.”
She splashes back underwater, and this time Tolya doesn’t follow. He stands at the bank for several minutes. Nadja watches the water-blurred shape of him. When she doesn’t re-emerge, he sighs, shoulders slumping like a man several times his age.
“I understand this is sudden. You need time to think. I’ll come back a week from now to hear your answer.”
Nadja listens for the sound of his voice, but he’s gone. The saltiness of her tears heightens the salinity of the pond. She screams, fully submerged, for what feels like hours. She might have compared the feeling to drowning, had she not performed the act of drowning once already with little success.
On the night before Tolya is due to return, Nadja doesn’t sleep. She stares up at the sky’s funerary veil and the dark green canopy of the trees. She listens to the familiar bird cries that only manage to accentuate the quiet instead of cutting through it. It’s safe here, in her weed-choked pond deep in the woods. Safe. Safe. Safe. She repeats the word in her head until it loses all meaning.
Wrapping her arms around her drawn-up knees, she sinks like a stone to the murky bottom. Her tangled hair and tattered dress fly behind her like a jellyfish’s tentacles. The light is faint, weakened rays of moonlight converging far up above. She woke up here, immersed in the green half-light. In the uncanny quiet. It’s the first memory she has of this second life she was given, and she’s held onto it for the longest time.
But Nadja doesn’t want to live in her almost-grave forever.
Tolya and his namesake, the sunrise, walk into the clearing hand-in-hand. He folds himself onto the grass under their willow tree, moist with morning’s breath. The sun renders each strand of his hair a live flame.
Nadja swims toward him and rests her elbows on the bank. She wipes the pond water from her face: the water that transformed her in some ways, allowed her to flourish on her own in others.
“Have you decided?” he asks. There’s hope woven through the spidersilk-softness of his voice. Fear, too. Nadja would recognize that feeling anywhere.
“I have.” She matches his tone, gentle as the pinks and oranges crawling across the drowsy sky.
“And?” he asks with bated breath.
Nadja thinks of browned flatbread, rough hands, and prayer-ravaged knees. Of closure. “Can we make a small detour into the village first? There’s someone I need to visit.”
Tolya blinks, long eyelashes catching against one another. “Does this mean you’re coming with me to the city?”
He appears too dazed to reach out to her, so Nadja lifts herself out of the pond and presses into his arms instead. “I am,” the words breathed out against his lips.
“Nadja, are you sure? There’s nothing I’d love more, but if you don’t want this for yourself—”
Nadja quiets him by brushing her mouth over his. “Shh. I want this.” She entangles their hands and presses them against their chests, where two hearts thunder. “I want us.”
The sun climbing over the treetops finds Nadja and Tolya clasped in embrace. They will visit the village one last time and each put their memories of it to rest. She will return her mother’s nightgown and say goodbye, but she won’t ask for her mother’s blessing.
Nadja feels plenty blessed already.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Mithila Review, Three Crows Magazine, and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.