Friday, November 9, 2018

On the Water's Edge by Kat Devitt

Frederick spends his life running, callous to who leaves behind, until he finds himself confronted by a divine mystery in Kat Devitt's mythic tale.

Frederick Wilde started running the moment his feet sprouted from his mother's womb. He kicked and flailed coming from her watery depths, because he already knew he had a father to escape. An angel engraved it onto his soul before sending him into her belly, because three days after his birth, his mother would die.

Never mind he was made from the same flesh as his mother. Never mind his father's blood ran through his veins. Frederick gave her difficulty coming into this world, ripping her open. When she heaved her final breath, he had become a murderer to his father; a crying infant, swaddled in snowy white blankets.

But he'd done his mother a kindness by helping her bleed out.

His father had adored her like a wanderer does the night sky. He had worshipped her for her beauty, and also her charms, Frederick's inheritance from her. Only, his father wasn't very kind or charming in return.

He'd viewed her as nothing but his property, as English law stated, his blows landing on her if she objected to his will. He aimed low, so as not to damage her lovely face, but the rest of her body he branded with bruises. With her dead and cold in her grave, Frederick was the new toy for his heavy hand.

His father moved to strike him for the smallest slights. If he didn't use the proper spoon for soup - thump. If he tracked mud into the halls - thwack. If he called his father "papa" rather than by his title, Lord Wilde, a mighty crack across the cheek.

His father never hesitated to beat him in front of the servants, nor did his father ease on calling him a "heartless murderer" or a "villain." The endearment of "papa" fell away from Frederick's lips as hatred sank into his later years, but he found an escape from his father in running.

Frederick's feet pattered on grass, sand, and cobblestones. He ran beneath the shadowy wingspans of hawks and along frothy shorelines. He ran through fields of heather and deep into the heart of woodland. He ran everywhere he ventured, but he never dared go into water. He'd never learned how to swim, because his father never bothered to teach him.

Frederick raced the boys in the village as his legs grew longer. Anyone who called him to a challenge made a meal of his dust. He quickly gained a reputation for being the fastest lad in all of Norfolk, his secret being he had experience running from his father's blows.

But there was one advantage to his skill. Women.

There's something women find attractive in a man undefeated by his opponents. Frederick beat every fellow he raced, and it helped he was devilishly good-looking. He came into his mother's beauty and charms, which enraged his father, but added to his growing reputation with the ladies.

They admired his physique, his sinew. They ran their hands along his biceps, his chest, feeling the bands of muscle, but most extolled his legs, sculpted and strong from running. Frederick could hold them high, for long periods of time, as he made them scream his name.

But he only took a certain type of lady for a romp.

He required his conquest's honey-colored curls tumble down her back to meet her slender waist. Her eyes needed to be as bright and clear as when sunlight hits a lake. Her cheeks needed to be ruddy and red, her lips as full as a flower in springtime.

These were the women he chose to take to his bed.

If she didn't meet his ideal, he didn't seduce her.

And they all looked like his mother.

A portrait of her hung above the mantel in his father's dusty parlor, where the walls were painted red and the curtains were streaming crimson. Blood red roses were kept in vases, their dried petals sprinkling the mahogany floor like coughed-up blood.

His father rather fittingly called it the Red Room and made her face its centerpiece. He locked Frederick in there often when he was a boy, if he wasn't in the mood to beat him. Frederick was tossed in there so that he might, as his father put it, "Look upon the woman you murdered."

Frederick studied her face so many hours in his boyhood, but as a man, he hardly spared her a glance. He was preoccupied chasing women with her likeness.

But he grew weary of the sport when those women, their hearts heavy, refused to let him go. He enjoyed being the hunter after its prey. He longed for the pursuit of skirt, not to be tailed by his former conquests.

And so, Frederick did what he knew best. He ran. He ran from them all. He dashed down narrow roads and cobblestone courtyards. He ran through fields and forests. He ran until his feet bled, to escape the images of his mother.

But one day, his feet stopped. For her.

Frederick's infatuation began the moment his eyes fell upon her stride. She was in a field, racing the wind. Her skirts were bunched up in her hands, her long, lean legs pounding against the ground. She ran swiftly, beautifully.

Her raven hair fell from its pins as her straw hat fell back, sailing into the grass. Her ample bosom enjoyed the bounces of her charge. She was exquisite, comfortable in her carefree spirit. And she resembled nothing of his mother.

She stopped in the center of the field when she noticed Frederick standing on the road, gawking at her. She approached. Her eyes blazed with indignation, her hands bunched into fists. A wave of intensity crashed into Frederick, sending a jolt of lust throughout his body

"Why?" she started, breathless, "do you spy on me, sir?"

Frederick said nothing. He couldn't manage a thought as he studied her. Her eyes were dark and beautiful, her hair a tangled mess, sweat glistening on her pale, unblemished forehead. A mole sat to the left of her lips, distinguishing her pretty mouth.

"Are you dumb in the head?" She snapped her fingers under his nose.

"Not in the least." Frederick flashed a practiced smile. "I'm only distracted by your loveliness."

She snorted. "You must be Lord Wilde's son."

"I see my reputation surpasses me."

"As nothing more than an accomplished flirt."

"Not for my prowess as a runner?"

She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, her darling lips curled in amusement. "I've only heard how you run from one bed to another."

No woman had ever spoken to him in such a forward manner. He angled his head, studying the way her hair shimmered in the sunlight. She was a puzzle, one he wished to piece together and take into his arms.

"What is your name?" he asked.

"I'll tell you if you beat me at a race." She pointed across the field at a fallen oak tree. "Whoever reaches there first wins."

She started without warning, but her flight didn't take Frederick off guard. He stayed behind her for a short time, admiring her curves, but pulled forward when it mattered most. He won, and he learned her name, Sarah Bedford. She was the daughter of a baron in a neighboring village.

Frederick adored her spirit, not simply her body. She'd the dark, sultry look of a Turkish sultan's courtesan, but the liveliness of an untamed thoroughbred. She was unlike any other woman, living or dead.

It took more time and seduction to deflower her. Frederick courted her not with kisses and fancies, but with competition. They raced one another across fields and through forests, down village streets and country lanes. Sometimes he allowed her to win, but not always. She was a good runner, but not nearly as quick as him.

Sarah fell into his arms through this bond. She succumbed, as every other woman, but he held onto her longer than any other. He was infatuated, strongly, wholly, but he never loved her. He couldn't love. He was a heartless murderer, after all.

Sarah spent a winter in his bed, from the first snowfall to the first flower in bloom. They met in secret in a cottage secluded on his father's estate when the ground was covered with too much white for a race. They became entangled in sheets as they learned each other's bodies, enjoying the heat of their lovemaking.

A fire never burned in the hearth, because they filled the room with their warmth, their fog shrouding the windows. On the other side of the glass, winter raged on into long nights. Frederick and Sarah made love endlessly, and she fell in love, while his heart remained open for another to come along.

Soon Sarah began asking after what every woman desires; marriage, a swollen belly, brats grabbing at the ankles. Frederick wanted to avoid the tragedy of his family by not starting one of his own. He envisioned a life without commitment, without worrying about a wife or children. He wanted freedom; she wanted a ring.

Frederick dismissed her fantasies with a kiss on the forehead, and he'd take her to bed. He replaced her wishes with moans, but soon his dismissals weren't enough to quiet her. Her dreams grew and grew, and one day, her hopes burst.

She came into Lord Wilde's home requesting an audience. She'd never stepped foot into that mausoleum, until she sat down in the Red Room, on a chaise longue beside Frederick. Her gaze searched the parlor, taking in the dust and age, while her hands shook from nerves.

Her eyes fell on the portrait above the mantel. "Is that your mother?"

"Yes." Frederick curled his lips up in annoyance. "Why have you come here, Sarah? I've told you not to."

"I cannot stay away. Not when you avoid me so."

"You ask for things I cannot give."

"Is that why you visit me less?" She confronted him with her gaze, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.

"Oh, my darling." His tenderness for her toppled his resolve, but only for a moment. He held her cheeks, taking in her softness. "I shall visit you tonight, if you wish it. But you mustn't come here again."

"Why?" she asked, all innocence.

Frederick wanted to shake understanding into her, but he kept the swell of violence down. He laxed his fingers, his hands falling back into his lap. "I've told you about my father, the beast in him."

She had the oddest look in her eyes. "He greeted me in the hall, after the butler answered the door. He seemed kind and friendly, with a ready smile."

Disbelief. She stared at him with disbelief, of all things. But she wasn't acquainted with his father, his curses, his blows. Not like him.

Frederick scowled at his predicament. "Don't be fooled. Beneath that mask, he's without a heart."

"Frederick." She grasped his wrists, her thumbs brushing lightly against his pulse. "I came, because I love you."

He glanced towards the doorway. He didn't want to be caught with her. "And I care for you, but you needn't be here to tell me this."

"I've darkened your doorstep for more than a few sweet words." She sank from the chaise longue, slipping from his grasp.

"Why are you on the floor?"

She settled onto her knee. "I... I must ask you something."

Frederick grabbed her arms and tried to yank her back into her seat. She'd lost all reason, all sense. She sat on the floor, leaving him in a desperate position, constantly looking back at the doorway for prying eyes.

"Are you mad? Get up," he hissed.

"No." Her hands shook. She clasped them together to try and hide her nerves, but still, she trembled. Sweat filmed on her upper lip, a bead falling from her mole. She looked nothing like the spirited beauty he admired. She was no longer free, tethered down by her love for him.

"Frederick, I knew from our first race I'd come to love you. It frightened me, really. I never thought I'd know such desperation, to want to be with one person always. And yet, you have done this to me. You've captured my heart for your own."

Footsteps echoed in the hall. Both their heads snapped in that direction, but no one appeared in the doorway, the steps growing distant. A near discovery. One he couldn't afford.

"Alright, Sarah. Thank you for the lovely speech, but you really must be on your way." He gave her arm a tug, but she stayed put. "What is it?"

"I have more to say."

"Do you want me to promise to come to the cottage?"

"No." She took a deep breath, as if gasping for air after being under water for too long. "This isn't how it's done, I know. This isn't the natural order. You might think me too bold, too forward, but I cannot suppress this question in my heart any longer. Frederick, will you marry me? Make me your wife, and grow old with me?"

His mouth hung so low, he looked like a screaming corpse. He stared at her dark beauty, his infatuation snuffed out by her neediness. She'd proposed to him, a woman - it was unheard of! And yet, here she was on her knees, like a beggar seeking alms.

Frederick had no words for her.

No love for her.

Ashes covered his desire, his passions, for her. Anything between them was done. They were finished, but he couldn't shout the words. Not when she stared at him so expectantly, as if he could light her world with one pretty word. So, his actions spoke for him.

Frederick bolted from the Red Room, his mother's eyes following him. He shoved past servants and rushed through doors. He charged across the gardens and disappeared into the woods, escaping into what he knew best. Running.

A breeze beat against his back, guiding him like a dandelion seed, a wish in the wind. He asked for escape from his life, and from everyone within it. He wanted to break from the parameters, to find himself as invisible and free as the guiding wind.

Frederick moved quickly amongst the trees, their limbs creating a canopy, darkening the world below. Shadows splayed out across the earthen floor, silence bearing down on him. It took him in, further and further, as if it never ended, as if it was his purgatory. He thought himself a ghost slipping through the underbrush, but he mused he wouldn't make a good phantom with all the thrashing he made.

His feet started to drag, as if lead replaced his blood. He was tired of running. He was tired of fleeing from the world. Then he saw shreds of light in the cracks between the trees. He raised up a sail and forced a second wind into his lungs.

Rays stretched towards him, tangling him into their web. A little voice inside his chest told him to turn around, to not go further. This voice had guided him all his life, warned him he'd a father to escape, and now it said disappointment lurked ahead. Another to pile with Sarah and his father.

But curiosity held him in its grip, urging him to continue on.

Frederick should've listened to that inner voice, with him since his birth, and not to curiosity, but how could he turn away when sunlight greeted him by the warmth on his skin? It took him into its arms, like a lover, pulling him into the clearing.

He stepped into its bright glow, and he saw heaven before him. Honeysuckles slept in the shadows of the trees, filling his nostrils with sweetness. Daisies spotted the grass, bowing in the wind of his arrival. The grass rippled, like the tresses of a woman's hair falling from its pins.

A lake rested at its center, the sun to this small universe. All else orbited around it as a detail. It remained still, even as a gentle wind blew through the grass and trees. Whispers sounded through each blade, each leaf, as if to dispense of a secret held within the water.

Frederick approached the lake, as if something called him from its watery depths. Water lapped against his boots as he stepped on the edge, entranced as light danced in its mirror, the world without reflected in its calm - the skies, the trees, the living - as if it was being absorbed within. A swan glided through, creating ripples where its feathers skimmed. It seemed out of place, this creature, for if he listened closely, he heard no other sound.

His gaze dropped to his reflection. A man tired from more than running stared back up at him. Darkness smudged beneath his blue eyes from sleepless nights, hearing the words "heartless murderer" and "villain" again and again. A tan stained his weather-beaten skin, from sprinting from hardships and blows. His lips were pale, as if color was wiped away from kissing countless women.

Frederick ran a hand through his golden hair, and the reflection did the same. It was him. Already tired, already looking for escape, long before he was born.

His tongue skimmed over his cracked lips. His throat was dry, like a desert starved for rain. A breeze blew over the water, making it shimmer in the sunlight, as if in response to his thoughts. Its depths looked refreshing, and he was so thirsty from running.

Frederick knelt onto the grassy shore, his trousers soaking at the knees. He didn't care as he cupped his hands and drank from the calm. It soothed him as it slid down his throat, dribbling down his chin.

He looked up again, searching for the swan's feathery behind. It was gone, flown away to make a home at another lake. He was without company, but he didn't feel alone. Lonely, of course, but not alone.

He dipped his hands into the water for another drink. He took what he could from the lake, filling himself with its depths. Calm. He was calm, something he rarely knew.

Until he glanced down into the water.

Deep blue eyes stared back at him, but they weren't his own. No, they belonged to a woman.

Frederick lurched back, falling onto the grass. He shook as if he'd run a thousand races. His heart thumped as if it might burst from his chest and dash away. And he thought madness had finally won over his mind.

Sarah's proposal had cut the last thread keeping him from falling into lunacy. He was seeing faces where there were none. He needed to wade back to calmer shores, to stability, to reason. It was the only explanation he could think of as he took deep breaths, each one slower than the last.

He relaxed.

He crept back towards the lake to prove his sanity to himself, but he saw only her. He blinked a hundred times, but she remained in his reflection. A trance fell over him, stronger each time he lifted his eyelids. Her deep, blue gaze pulled him to her, to the lake.

She was lovely. Her lips held a gentle smile. Amusement danced in her eyes. Her golden curls swayed about her, like seaweed caught in a drift. She outmatched all of the village girls in beauty. She rivalled even Sarah - and won the race.

Frederick's view of this watery specter ended at her milky shoulders. Water veiled her body. He reached out to touch her, to see if he might caress her cheek. His hand scraped against the shallow and sandy embankment, not finding her flesh. She disappeared into the ripples, stirred by his movement.

He mourned for the loss of her. For those pale cheeks he had never touched. For those rose petal lips he'd never kissed. Sadness he'd never felt, not even for his dead mother, filled his chest.

But she reappeared when the water settled again. She smiled up at him, stirring his delight. He reached out to her, finding only the embankment, and she disappeared again. He sat in her absence, anxious for her to return to him. She came, and she stayed. Her peace, and her calm, settled over him.

"Stay with me, my darling." Frederick settled onto the water's edge, staring into her mesmerizing eyes, as still and tranquil as the lake. "If only for today, stay."

He remained by the lake until nighttime masked the sky. His only company was the moon's bald face gleaming into the lake's mirror. Hanging high above, even this celestial being's reflection seemed to be absorbed into the waters.

"Goodnight, my darling." Only the night air heard his sweetness. "I promise to return in the morning."

She smiled up at him in answer.

Frederick rose from his grassy seat, reluctant to return to his father's home. He wanted to spend the night with his darling, but the need for sleep stole him away. He settled into his bed that night, thinking of her, his nameless paramour.

Frederick returned to her in the dawn, and again, he stayed into the night. He returned for her every day, with her always waiting for him. His need for her grew with every visit. He recognized this lightness, this craving. For the first time in his life, love seeped through the valves to his heart.

Love followed him through the days and weeks. It filled him as the seasons changed from spring to summer, summer to autumn. She was his constant, his devotion. She never failed to wait for him, and he loved her all the more for it.

"Helena." He whispered her name one day. It came to him as a prayer does, from the emptiness within his soul, only to fill him with light.

"Helena," he said again.

Frederick idled his days beside her, breathing her name in every moment. He barely touched food for want of her lips. He barely laid in his bed for want of her body next to his.

She lived within his dreams the few hours he managed to sleep. He both resented and savored those moments when he woke in the morning, the sky still darkening his window. He saw more than her face. He saw her, body and all, nude as Botticelli's Venus riding her scallop to the shore.

Only, Helena never emerged from the waters while he sat beside her, awake. She stayed in her home in the lake as he wasted away at the sight of her. A deep ache resided in his fingertips as he longed to touch her, to whisper her name, but the chance never came.



Sightings of Frederick Wilde became rare around the village. Glimpses of him were caught by farmers and laborers in the early mornings, and by blackguards and drunkards long after midnight. Each time he appeared more gaunt and haggard, wasting away with autumn, as the leaves withered off the trees.

He was no longer beautiful to look upon, like a Narcissus tempting nymphs. His popularity amongst the village's women disappeared with his beauty. They stopped chasing him as their heads turned to new faces.

But Sarah continued to love him. Months ago, he had run off after she proposed marriage to him. It had wounded her heart. She doubted her affections at the memory of her embarrassment, but she stayed steadfast. She had never loved until she met him. She couldn't simply abandon the hope in her breast while he lived.

Sarah visited Lord Wilde's home every Sunday, hoping to see Frederick. She developed a ritual with Lord Wilde. She called in the mornings when it was proper to pay someone a visit. His butler never guided her to the parlor, rather Lord Wilde himself led her to the Red Room. He abandoned her with a smile and left her to sit beneath Lady Wilde's painted gaze, wiling away her hours, waiting for Frederick to come.

Hours ticked away. Her Sundays passed in Lord Wilde's home, rather than in a church. Frederick had become her religion, her devotion, but she never saw him. Not when she wanted him.

Sarah started to wonder, if she died in that room, might her spirit become an impression within those crimson walls?

She prayed not.

She never died waiting for Frederick, but she never caught sight of him either. Lord Wilde knew nothing of where his son idled. He hadn't seen much of him since the first of spring, and now here it was, the leaves crisping with the descent into winter.

Sarah wasted away waiting for him, twiddling her thumbs as she sat on the chaise longue, breathing in dust. But it gave her time for reflection. She couldn't expect Frederick to come to her, so she needed to follow his patterns if she was to sniff him out.

One Sunday, Sarah rose before any rooster crowed. She stood in the center of her dark room, nighttime still at its height, wondering if she was a fool to go forward with her plan. She feared thieves and bandits on the country roads, she would be a lady alone, an easy mark for a blackguard.

And she thought of her father. She would earn his disdain if he discovered her plan. She could hear his voice booming in her ears, as if he stood beside her. "You've ruined yourself. And for what purpose? To follow some man? You stupid girl, no one will consider you a proper lady now."

Fear paralyzed her legs, but all she needed was to recall her justification for this venture.

Frederick.

She loved him without reason, even as reason tried to keep her away. She couldn't abandon him. Not without attempting to talk with him, to sort out the messy business of her proposal, and to ensure his well being. Because if village gossip was to be believed, he looked a frightful sight.

Thoughts of him hardened her resolve as she dressed in her plainest walking dress. She tied worn boots onto her feet, and she threw a coat on to protect her from the winter chill. She wore her armor, ready for a chase.

Sarah slipped from her house without a sound. A blast of cold air welcomed her, a light snowfall dusting the ground. She shivered, but warmed herself with a run, as good as any fire.

She came to Lord Wilde's home without encountering bandits or thieves. There was still her father to worry about, but she shoved that anxiety aside for the moment. She waited amongst the trees for any sign of Frederick, trembling as snow fell onto her shoulders, clinging to her hair.

It didn't take long for him to appear.

Frederick shot from his home and into the forest at a pace only Hermes could match on his winged sandals. She chased after him, picking her steps through the underbrush, careful not to make a sound to attract his attention. But she didn't think he'd notice a tree falling behind him in his mad dash.

It proved difficult to keep behind him. He ran as if hunting-dogs, the hounds of hell, nipped at his heels. He never ran like this, not in any of their races. He always charged with a confidence in his stride, a surety of victory in his eyes, like a hotblooded stallion. But in this forest, desperation guided his feet, like a prisoner escaped from an insane asylum.

Sunlight didn't break through the canopy of tree limbs, keeping her guessing if it was morning or endless night. She saw only shadows and darkness. Her only guide was Frederick's shadow. She clung to the sight, for without him, she would be lost in the winter.

She thought he might stop when his shoulders began to sag, but he didn't. He continued on. And on. And on.

Sarah panted, wanting this to end. She bunched her skirts into her fists, fearing she might lose Frederick if she slowed for a breath. She started to think they were trapped in limbo, where she would forever chase him, and he'd forever run away.

This thought scarcely entered her head when Frederick slowed. She looked ahead, towards the trees, where daylight broke through the crevices in their branches. It seeped through the darkness, giving faith.

Frederick walked through, as if lifting a veil, entering into another world. And of course, she followed him. She would follow him into fiery pits if she had a chance at his love.

On the other side of the trees, she found a marvel. She found a magic beyond her imagination as she stepped into springtime. Everything was stained green in this pocket of the woods, while winter froze the surrounding forest.

Flowers flourished amongst the emerald green grass. Daisies stared up at the sun stretched lazily over the horizon. A lake rested in the center of the oasis, calm and still.

No noise touched her ears. Not the sighs of the forest, nor the whispers of the wind. Nothing danced or swayed, not even the grass or flowers. They stood like icicles, as if the winter froze their blades and petals. Only a swan glided in the center of the lake, this bit of life seeming out of place in the stillness.

Frederick sat on the lake's shore. His clothes hung on his thin body, his cheeks gaunt and hollow. He splashed at the water, his face screwed in frustration. He looked like a skeleton.

Grass swished at her slow steps. "Frederick," she called.

He whipped around, as if he hadn't heard a voice in months. "How did you find me?"

"I followed you."

His brows knitted together. His skin was cracked, his eyes distracted. He was no longer beautiful, but Sarah saw glimpses of her Frederick in the glimmer of his golden hair, the crystal of his blue gaze.

Those village gossips were right about his dreadful appearance, but he wasn't without hope. She still desired him, in every way. She wanted to revive him. She wanted to make his cheeks rosy and his flesh plump again. To see him whole, as he was before.

"You shouldn't have come." He dismissed her with that, turning back towards the water.

Sarah came closer. "Frederick, why do you splash at the water? It's cold outside."

"I am trying to touch her."

She blinked, not sure how to decipher his answer. "Who?"

"Helena." His face sank into disappointment as he dipped his hand into the lake once more. "She smiles at me with love in her eyes, but she never allows me to caress her."

Sarah knelt on the shore beside him, and she looked into the water. She saw only their reflections staring back at them. His, a skeleton seeking life, but never finding it. And hers, staring after him with longing, but never finding her heart fulfilled.

"I see only our faces," she whispered.

"Wait for the water to settle."

It calmed. But still, she saw no woman.

"Don't you see her?" he asked, desperate for confirmation. "Don't you see her blue gaze? Her golden tresses curled about her face? Her smiling back at us?"

Sarah saw nothing. Nothing, except their pitiful reflections. "No, Frederick." She rubbed his back, her fingers sliding over the ridges of his ribs. "I don't see a woman."

"She's looking at me!" He shoved her hands away. He leaned forward to kiss the water, his reflection coming to greet his lips. He leaned back, tears in his eyes. "But she will not kiss me."

Water trickled down his chin. He lifted skeletal fingers to brush it away, his eyes misting over. He didn't bother to wipe his tears from his cheeks, as if to prove his affections to his mistress.

"How can she know I love her if she doesn't feel my adoration?" He huddled closer to the lake, staring into its watery depths.

Sarah stayed with him a moment longer. She reached out to touch this madman, but she couldn't allow herself to love him anymore. He'd chosen to whom he'd give his heart - a lake, a reflection.

She rose from the embankment and started for the woods. She paused at the edge of the forest, glancing back at Frederick, as memories of him echoed in the cavern of her mind. His handsome face, his strong hands. His capable mind, his hatred towards his father. And his quick tempo; quick on his feet, quick with his flattery, quick to take her to his bed.

On the lake, Sarah noticed the swan had returned, as if waiting for her to leave before continuing to glide in the water's spell. It held its head high, its feathers snowy white and beautiful. It arched its neck, like a woman bent on seduction.

Sarah turned away from dreams lost to this lake, returning home before her father noticed her absence. Each step closer reminded her of her hopes, now adrift; marriage, children, and a home of her own. All had centered around Frederick, the sun of her life.

Now all was lost.

Unless she found another.

But Sarah's heart bounded from her chest and returned to him. He was the one she had wanted for a lifetime, but he had only desired a winter in her bed. She needed to rid her mind of him, if only she could forget the sadness of him lingering by that lake.



Frederick remained with Helena long after Sarah left. A winter chill crept through his woolen greatcoat and trousers, trapping cold within his chest. His toes froze within his boots, but he couldn't tear himself from Helena, only to sleep in his warm, lonely bed. He'd rather freeze with her than spend another night in that mausoleum to his mother.

He fell asleep at her side, gliding into dreams as a body into water. In those shadows, he stood at the forest's edge. He gazed out at the lake, thriving in springtime. The swan drifted in its center, often his companion as he stayed with Helena.

It glided towards the embankment, leaving a rippling V in its wake. It moved its head from side to side, as if it watched him in return. It took its merry time in coming to the shore, dancing in courtship, as it flaunted the gleam in its feathers, the grace in its bill.

One webbed foot touched the shore. Frederick blinked, and it was gone. Toes wriggled in place of webbing. Heels dug into the mud. Any trace of the swan had disappeared, feathers and all.

His gaze trailed up a creamy leg peeking out from the slit of a white dress. Further up, he saw a petite waist made for holding. Breasts made to fit into his hands. A neck begging for light kisses. Lastly came the woman's face. He recognized those deep blue eyes, those smiling lips.

"Helena," he breathed.

She waved a hand for him to come. He took a step as he watched something else, something more, something not like love, glint in her eyes, then he snapped out of the dream. The swan was gone. She was gone. And all he had left was the winter cold, the moon overhead, and the forest to trap his dreams.

Tears came to his eyes. He folded his legs against his chest, rested his chin on his knees. He wearied from wanting the fruits he saw but could not hold.

He shook with a desperation, wanting nothing more than to touch the woman he loved. But his fantasies were cracking. He couldn't despair of Helena anymore, not when she abandoned him to his dreams, to his tears. He couldn't wait a lifetime for her when she lived within water, while his feet stayed dry on land. He was ready to quit her.

He lifted his head, arming himself with the resolve to walk away forever, when he found the world around him appeared different, as if while he wept another came into formation. The skies overhead glittered with silver specks, as if someone had thrown fairy dust onto the gray scape. The moon appeared as if an invisible rope had pulled it closer to the earth. A few lights streaked through the darkness, disappearing behind heaven's folds.

While the skies shimmered with clearness, a thick mist draped over everything on the ground. He couldn't see further than his outstretched hand as the mists clung to him like a shroud. He might have thought he'd woken up in London if not for the smell of dew-covered grass.

Misty strands swirled over the lake, mirrored on its surface, as if it was a veil to another world. He rubbed at his eyes and peeked into the lake, but he didn't see Helena, or his own reflection. It was clear as a crystal beneath the waters.

Quiet hung all around him. It filled his ears, his lungs, as if he breathed it. He splashed at the water, if only for a sound, breaking through the decay in his ears.

Frederick stood up, lifting himself from the silence. "Helena," he shouted.

He waited for a response. A cry, a whisper. But what he heard was laughter, a melody sweeping across the waters.

Frederick perked his head up at this playful sound, the first he'd heard in this oasis. Before him, the mists swirled and parted on the lake, as if on command. Silver strands danced on the shores, circling the lake and forming a wall. Frederick saw nothing of the forest. It was as if it had never existed, this being the only world he'd ever known.

He watched in wonder as a shadow started to emerge in its center. It climbed through the water at a slow pace, as if someone below built it stone by stone.

A staircase.

It broke through the mirror, water sloshing as it rose higher and higher. Its silver steps glimmered in the moonlight. It stopped feet above the water, a tower pointed to the heavens.

He blinked, disbelieving the madness in the vision before him, but he gave his faith when a head emerged from under the waters as someone climbed the steps.

Helena. Her name rang in his head, but the thought didn't echo through to his lips. He couldn't speak, couldn't move, frozen in guilt as he watched her body emerge.

She was more beautiful than any dream. Her honey blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders, damp and glittering with silver ornaments strung through her curls. She wore a silver dress with a slit revealing a glimpse of her pale legs. Her dress resembled the togas and robes on the Grecian statues on display at the British Museum.

She appeared to be made of silver, glittering like one of those stars above. She didn't belong on this earth within the waters of a lonely lake. She belonged in the heavens above, in the realm of the celestial, where she could take away the breaths of every mortal when nighttime fell.

Helena smiled towards him, her blue eyes reeling him in. She took one more step up, her gaze never leaving him, as she reached out a hand. "Come," she mouthed.

He couldn't hear her, but he read her lips. It was like reading Shakespeare from the petals of a rose, waiting for a sound or a whisper.

He tore his boots from his feet. "Anything you ask, my love."

Frederick stepped into the water, but hesitation anchored his heels in the grass. You'll die if you venture into water, his father told him once, many years ago in the Red Room. You always run from fate, from the murder of your mother. It'll be justice if you die that way.

Frederick wriggled his toes, sending ripples into the lake. He looked out over the unknown lurking in the waters, and fear gripped him. "Helena," he called. "Helena, I don't know how to swim!"

Laughter rang inside his head as Helena's lips curled into a half-smile. She was there, absorbed into his thoughts. Like a fog stretched across a landscape, swallowing trees, houses, and people. Consuming him.

"Come to me," she mouthed. She reached out her hand once more, as if she meant to draw him in by a string knotted around his heart, a lure she'd been tightening for months.

Frederick took a breath, shaky in fear. He stepped in further, to where his trousers clung to his calves. He found Helena watching him with hope in her eyes, her soul pleading with his. He decided in that moment, in that shared love, that he'd reach her.

Frederick waded through the water, walking down the gradual incline into the lake. It was up to his neck when Helena was a stone's throw away. Something flickered in her eyes, something that never lived there before.

"Come," she repeated without sound.

Come.

Come.

Her chant rang in his thoughts, matching his every step. He came to her as a sailor to land, as Odysseus to Penelope, too long adrift without his sweet love's embrace.

"I'm coming," he croaked.

Frederick hardly made a sound as he struggled to keep his head above water, shivering as thousands of icy pinpricks plucked at his flesh. He spat out the chilly water, his gaze stuck on Helena. She changed before him. Not with feathers and magic, but in her eyes, her smile.

Come.

Another step.

"And die," she shouted, her voice breaking from his thoughts for the first time.

Frederick tripped as the lake gave way into a sharp incline. His arms flailed as he grasped for a security not there. His feet sought ground, but he found nothing as he thrashed and kicked.

He choked on the coldness. "Help me." He looked to Helena, his night star, with a plea. "Help me, I c-cannot s-swim!"

It was a miracle he managed to say as much. But these were not to be his last words as he stared into Helena's brilliant, blue eyes from across a stretch of water. He found coldness there, her lips twisting like a flower in a storm, petals scattering.

She took a single step down. "This is what a man deserves when he tempts and takes all the world's beauty."

Helena's voice flowed over him, striking him down. Like lightning. Like a tree falling. "In your mother's memory. In Sarah's name. For all the women you took without care, without thought," she continued, "you will suffer in my body, in the reflection you so craved."

He hardly heard her through the water in his ears, but he understood her message all the same. She intended his death from their first meeting.

And she'd have it.

Frederick went under, but he managed to resurface. He gasped for air, puffing out the steam of his aching, cold lungs. And he shouted a name. Not Sarah's. Not his father's. Not even Helena's.

"Mama," he shouted. "Mama."

His body gave up. He sank into the lake, its water choking his breaths before he could say the last words etched into his mind. I'm sorry.

He was stripped of his life, of his soul. But before the world faded around him, the last image he saw was of a swan taking flight into the moonlight. Into the heavens where his mother lived, but where he'd never find a home.



All the village stirred at news Frederick was missing. Men gathered in the local tavern and shared theories, while the women gossiped over tea and biscuits in their parlors. Laborers huddled together in fields, talking, while the pastor preached to his congregation his thoughts on what happened to Lord Wilde's wicked son. Even the town drunk had an opinion on why he disappeared.

He quit his overbearing father and their home. He ran away with a woman: a French émigré, a Spanish dame, a courtesan from the Orient. But the favorite theory was he'd finally run too far, he'd become lost in the forest.

Last Sarah saw Frederick was when he sat on the water's edge. She separated her heart from him, but she found it difficult to keep away with so many theories swirling about his disappearance. She loved him less, but she loved him still.

Only she knew the truth. It was a mingling of all three theories. He'd run so far into the woods to escape his father, and possibly her, that he discovered a lake where a woman resided. But only a woman of his imagination.

Sarah knew no one would believe the insanity of the truth. Frederick had fallen in love with a woman living in his reflection. He had spent hours worshipping a mirage. He'd spiraled into madness these many months past, but none of this would help find him.

So, she lied.

She hadn't stepped into Lord Wilde's home since quitting her hopes of marrying Frederick, but he received her one sunny afternoon, as if no time had passed. He sat with her in the Red Room, the sunlight caressing Lady Wilde's portrait, hung in its gleaming gold frame. Roses filled her nose with their perfume, their dead petals sprinkled on the mahogany floors. She set about telling Lord Wilde a lie designed to kick up his worry.

"Frederick was trying to learn how to swim," she began.

Lord Wilde's bushy, gray brows clashed together. "How do you know this?"

Sarah gave him the lie she had rehearsed many times in her mirror. "I followed him into the forest. He ran very deep into the woodland, to this lake secluded from any man. I watched him practice."

Lord Wilde didn't question this most unladylike behavior. No lady would dare spy on a half-naked man while he swam, much less follow him into dense forests. It was a risk to her reputation, but one she needed to take to answer her deepest fears.

Lord Wilde steepled his fingers as he leaned back in his chair with an unsettling creak. "Was he any good at it?"

"No."

The peculiarity of the question struck her. He showed no concern for his son's wellbeing, but rather sported a smug, a distant glint in his dark gaze. Frederick's warning rose within her mind as she glimpsed this beast of a father. Don't be fooled. Beneath that mask, he's without a heart.

But Lord Wilde had always shown her kindness. He was the grinning, old man who had greeted her every Sunday, leading her to the Red Room with empty and polite chatter. She couldn't reconcile in her mind this image with Frederick's words.

"I believe the lake must be searched," she suggested.

He nodded, his smile still there. "I think you're correct on that point, Miss Bedford."

"I could show you where the lake rests. I could show you now..."

That last word trailed off as Lord Wilde raised his hand in a gesture for silence. "That won't be necessary. I'll give you a team of servants to scour the lake tomorrow for my fool of a son."

Sarah sat there in the chill of his words. "As you wish."

"And do not worry. I'll not tell your father, or any soul, for that matter, that you spied on my son. You loved him, and you're the only person to ever have done so." He rose from his chair. "I'll show you out, Miss Bedford. You've been such a help."

She followed Lord Wilde. He remained steps ahead of her, his stride quick, his shoulders stiff. He wasn't kind, as he'd been in the past, but cold, unfeeling. This was her first and last glimpse of the beast Frederick knew. Her views of Lord Wilde clashed, but she knew this much: she vowed not to set foot in this house again, not after the search tomorrow.

Sarah arrived at Lord Wilde's home again the next morning to head an expedition into the forests. She guided the team of servants through the shadowy purgatory with nothing but a hazy memory to rely on. An hour passed before she rediscovered the quiet haven.

Those innocent men halted on the forest's edge, charmed by the lake's deceit. They sniffed the honeysuckles and watched the daisies dance in the wind. The lake welcomed its new guests, remaining beautiful and lifeless, reflecting the world around it, as if it was as innocent as heaven.

"This is it," Sarah announced.

Each man gave his head a shake, remembering why they were standing there, staring into the lake. They started forward, yanking off their boots, ripping off their shirts. They waded into the water, searching for Frederick. Maybe they'd find him, or maybe he'd truly run off with another woman.

Sarah hoped he was somewhere safe and warm. She pictured him in a bed, beneath a silk canopy, his arms around a woman. She couldn't see the woman's face, nor did she care to imagine it. The woman could've been blonde, brunette, or a fiery redhead; soft, supple, lithe, or fleshy. Sarah didn't care what she looked like as long as Frederick was somewhere alive.

But she doubted it.

An hour passed. And another. Sarah sat on the grassy shore, watching the men in their endeavor. She tried to calm herself by imagining Frederick someplace safe. Amongst the ruins of Greece. In the shadows of Parisian alleyways. In the comforts of London. Always with the same faceless woman. Anywhere but here, she prayed.

This hope grew stronger with each splash, each shrug, each moment. Sarah clasped her hands together, staring up into the skies above. She sent up chants and promises. She offered her dreams as sacrifice for Frederick's life, but for nothing.

Noon approached when a man dived into the center of the lake. He resurfaced minutes later with a gasp. "Here! Here!" he hollered, waving his arms.

Three other men came over to aid him. They disappeared into the waters, only to reappear with a body. They struggled to carry it to the embankment. She caught glimpses of the gray flesh, the rotting hair. She knew without being told.

They'd found Frederick.

She turned away. She couldn't stand to watch his body hauled onto the shore. She didn't want her last memory of him to be of his bloated corpse. She wanted to remember him as he once was; vibrant, energetic, handsome. Her lover and friend.

Tears streamed down her cheeks. There were too many for her to catch. All she could do was blink through her soaked lashes as she fell onto her knees, not caring if she stained her skirts. She had known love, and she had lost it.

Sarah sensed someone watching her as if she was a masterpiece created by their own hands, their own imagination. She took a shuddering breath, holding back the flow of her tears, as she turned to the forest. Sarah searched the greenery for those eyes admiring her, desiring her.

It didn't take much to find that someone.

She stood on the forest's edge, on the other side of the lake. She wore a loose dress, resembling a toga, made from silver silk. Honey blonde hair fell over her shoulders, illuminating her fair skin. She looked as if she'd just stepped out of a scene from a Greek myth.

No one else saw the woman. She made herself known to only Sarah. Pride filled her gaze as she looked between Sarah's tears and the team of servants struggling to haul Frederick's body onto the grassy shore.

She smiled across the water at Sarah. Her delicate lips moved in a rhythm, born from the lake, as if Sarah had tossed a stone into its waters, its ripples the woman's words.

Sarah couldn't make out what she said, but she heard in her head, "You'll be happier without him." Those words came as a thought, a rattle, in her mind. Her tears sprung anew as she realized this was Helena. This was her rival, Frederick's love - and his murderess.

Helena glided through the grass towards the lake. Her gaze remained with Sarah as she dipped her feet into the water. Sarah blinked, and she was gone. In her place was a swan, gliding across the waters.

Sarah raced towards the embankment. She stared into the water, but she didn't see her reflection. She saw Helena, staring back. Helena was the lake, the water her blood. This clearing, trapped in an endless spring, embodied her soul. Sarah knew it without needing the evidence to support her beliefs. Helena had told her, without saying anything at all.

Fury overtook Sarah as she lashed out at Helena's image. Water hit her face, mingling with her tears. Once the ripples settled, she was gone. And the swan remained, gliding in its home, its paradise.

Sarah could light a fire to burn this clearing, to ruin Helena's soul. To consume Helena's heart, as she'd consumed hers. And even then, the lake would remain. New flowers and trees would grow through the ashes, and Helena would continue to live on, as the nymphs of old.

But Sarah wouldn't. She couldn't. Helena had taken her soul. She'd waste away her days with a hollow for a heart, forever thinking of Frederick, his reflection in her memory.

3 comments:

  1. The characters come to life, the scenes dance before your eyes. Not my usual cup of tea in terms of a story, but your writing is compelling and I found I couldn't "put it down." I wanted to feel some empathy or sorrow for Sarah, but Frederick was a hollow man, and I think somewhere deep inside she knew that all along.
    Thanks
    Jim

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  2. Thank you, Jim! I'm glad you enjoyed my story. It took a few rewrites to evoke the hollowness in Frederick. He was empty due to the abuse from his father, which is at the root of this story. I hope this came across as well.

    Again, thank you for reading,
    Kat Devitt

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    Replies
    1. Indeed it did. I found myself (just my reading between those re-written lines) also making a connection between the father's insistence on perfection (or along came a thump) and Frederick needing to find his vision of perfection in the ghostly Helena.

      Keep writing! (and rewriting and rewriting ;-)

      Jim

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