by Jodi Ralston
Sunlight, bit by bit, shattered the hold of endless dark. When the last of the dream melted away, Mr. Ayers rolled his head toward the window, smiling. Then a smell penetrated. Watermelon. A lot of it.
And rancid at that.
He looked to the floor.
Nothing. Not a snake, not a corpse to stain the white carpets. He tried to lever up to see if she had tricked him and escaped into the darkness beneath his bed. But his left arm failed him with screams not all his own.
None of which brought his benefactor rushing to his side.
When the pain quieted, he lifted the arm before his face, surprised that he could, and pulled down the sleeve, just an inch. Amongst skin crisscrossed with angry red lines, hairs poked out. He tugged one but stopped once he met resistance. Embedded in his skin then.
He took a moment to gather his thoughts and will, then he rose, found clothes-not his own, but one amongst a hoard of many styles and sizes-and dressed in the closest match. From there, he went to the door that bore the red snake and her many appendages sprawled from lintel to end. Overpowering watermelon scent seeped out from beneath it. His hand shook as he placed it on the knob, shook worse when that undesired contact made all the hidden places ache, especially those in his left arm. His arm hurt when he wrapped it around his body.
He abandoned the door.
After all, he didn’t need to see “Sir Bennic Daga” sprawled upon the bed, dark marks ringing his twisted throat, to know. It was not worth opening a door over. Not when the front door would require all his strength to face down. Doors, after all, were such tricky things. One was never sure what they might open onto, if they would open at all.
Yet it did open, and weak from mental strain, he succeeded in fleeing the house. He would have ran from the estate, too, if not for the statue.
She looked the same, all-giving but ignorant of what monsters had abused her home. Though he had aided her by removing the trespasser, he cringed as he held his hand out to her waters, expecting rejection. It never came; instead, like drowning earthworms, the plaited hair sought escape. With a long sigh, he thrust himself under the shower and watched them slip away. But they disappeared down, down, down into the depths of the black hole spread before her feet, and he didn’t like holes so dark he couldn’t see their depths in the daylight, so he closed his eyes while the rest squirmed free.
Once rid of the last of the infestation, he stepped back, bowed to his benefactress, and cupped some in his hand to drink. The water stuttered. Stopped. Leaving just the handful, heady with fragrance but clear as a mirror.
That was, until the invisible hairs slid across the surface, breaking up the reflection.
He may have sobbed.
It wouldn’t be the first time this week.
She laughed. “Oh, it puts me beyond patience to see your kind waste such precious water, my dear.” And the invisible hairs crept up and brushed against his cheek, flicking at the wetness there. “There. Better. Now, I have waited long enough for my reckoning. Let us prepare.”
And the waters gushed forth in a froth and fury of red. Forcing him to his knees, it poured over him, and she knew him, and he her.
She ripped asunder the locked door of memories and drew out the Thing in the Void. No, the void itself. And a body of red water, with many tributaries but one head, which once ran beneath and through the void. Until the void discovered a human. Took the human. Played with the human, running “himself” through something for once. Then finding the sensation deeply satisfying in ways “she” could never be, he dried up her waters until she had no choice but to retreat to safe grounds. Afterward, she flowed just beneath the surface of the land, lost to the only home she ever knew, and she circled it and circled and circled, and when she found a solitary human, she circled that instead. She took her time as she did so, crafting her illusion, setting her trap-“man,” “mansion,” and “statue.” And for her efforts, she was amply repaid when she sucked her writhing prey dry and reconstituted its bones into the skeletons of her constructs. The illusion grew vast over the years, but it remained empty as her hearts, for she never forgot that her newfound strength rested upon the very objects responsible for her exile. Strength grew, anger grew, but still it was not enough, never enough, for she waited.
Waited for her mate to slip up and expel something other than the dry, spotted bones that she would leach, their bitterness a poor match for that which gelled within her hearts.
Then, at long last, her mate made his mistake, and the prize stumbled her way.
And, oh, how it mocked her with all those secret smiles upon its skin! In her fury, she acted prematurely, falling upon it as if it were regular prey, and when her most useful construct “died” for it, so had her chance.
That was, until the foolish creature sought her out one last time.
She claimed it for her own.
The waters stopped. She was ready, done with waiting. He rose. Turned. Started marching back in the direction of the temple. Long before he reached it, it felt him and stopped skulking after its latest pretty trinket. It set atremble all the hidden mouths, which thence woke, yawned, gaped. Hungered. The second tremble promised them sustenance. They believed and smiled. When he arrived at the hill beneath the giant twisted tree, the tangle of roots parted. It wove a door for him, which yawned open, slowly, silently, welcoming him back.
And just like poor little Mr. Niccla Ayers laughing beneath a fountain of water, his mate did not see beyond the damning lie.
Oh, perfect. He put on his best seductive smile and went home.