art by Jeffrey Redmond
by Annie Bellet
***Editor's Note: This story includes mature and potentially disturbing themes. It is not for all readers***
Mai goes for her daily run, glad that spring has arrived and freed her from the treadmill. She usually makes a circuit down through the gardens but today she turns and runs uphill, toward the cherry orchard. At first, her calves feel like lumps of wood, but she warms up and finds her stride. When Love, who she has started to call Pembroke in her head as a tiny rebellion, told her to start running two years ago, she hated it. Now, this is her favorite time each day. This is also the only time she is allowed to wear pants.
Pembroke seems to think that running will keep her from turning into a woman. Her period, which made him so unhappy before, has stopped. The dresses he buys her hang on her bones and she feels less like the little girl he wants her to be than a doll made from sticks.
The cherry trees are in bloom. Pink and white petals drift down, fragrant snow, and she raises her hands, brushing branches to shake down more as she runs past. Mai crosses to the end of the orchard and looks up to the rocky, sparsely forested hills beyond. She knows there is no one and nothing out there because Pembroke has told her so many times over the years. Only the villa below her and the people who work the gardens, people who do not meet her eyes. People who speak a language she cannot remember.
Pembroke has business today. He is locked in his office. Mai does not think he will mind if she runs for more than her usual hour. He will not even notice as long as she is back before tea.
She sets out up the hill. Her feet leave impressions in the moss, and small brown speckled birds call out to each other as she pushes through untamed branches. The villa, when she looks back, is invisible, but Mai thinks she can find her way back by going downhill when she's ready.
It is midmorning when she hears the sound of a stream. She follows the fresh scent of water, wishing she'd brought a bottle along with her. Pembroke only drinks water from bottles. Mai dips her hands in the clear brook and splashes cold water on her face, but doesn't drink. She follows the stream back down the hill as it curves off to the right of where she climbed up.
The stream ends in a pond tucked away in the clumped shade of trees Mai doesn't know the name of. Tiny purple flowers drip from the trees as though garlanded there by an invisible hand. The area around the pond is pebbled with dark green stones that shine brighter green where the water laps against them. Mai picks one up and rubs the smooth surface with her thumb.
Jade. The floor of this place is jade. It glints in the water as well until the depths swallow too much light for her to see down further. Mai wonders if Pembroke made this place, but the untrimmed trees and sheltered wildness here don't seem like his style. He likes his world controlled, orderly, everything in its place.
The sun hangs overhead, beating down and the skin beneath her T-shirt is prickly with sweat. Mai hesitates and then strips off her clothing, her eyes darting around the glade, looking everywhere but down at herself. She folds her clothing with precise movements, lays them on top of her shoes, and then walks into the water.
The pond is colder than the stream and her jaw clenches as she slides in. Her braid floats like a snake behind her. Mai kicks off the bottom, swimming out to the middle of the pond. It is nothing like swimming in the infinity pool on the deck at the villa. She dunks her head and opens her eyes under water.
There is no sting of chlorine and the sunlight paints shadow worlds in the depths below. The pond is very deep, the jade beach dropping off into darkness. Down in that dark shines a glint of gold. Then of blue. Gold, then blue. Something moves in the water far beneath her and Mai comes up for air.
The water around her churns and she screams, forgetting how to swim for a moment in her panic. She goes under and her legs kick at the swirling water. Then a wave, rising from deep within the pond, lifts her up to the surface and carries her back to the shore.
Mai gasps on the beach, her body half in the water. She rubs her eyes and blinks against the light. A huge serpent, scales blue and gold, rises from the pond and she wonders if she has passed out.
The water dragon shrinks as it reaches the shore. Mai scrabbles backward, only her feet in the water now. The dragon morphs from a scaled beast with a bearded, wolfish head into a boy not much older than her sixteen years. His skin is blue and his eyes are gold. His hair is less like human hair than like vines, tendrils of water-grass colored like the jade beneath her body. When he smiles, his teeth are black.
Mai bites her knuckles and holds as still as she can. Her clothes are too far away. She doesn't think screaming will help. Screaming has never helped her.