Lizzie felt sure she would burst.
The fish dragged fast and faster one way, and the current that flowed strong and deep to the Underworld, and which was not known to give up souls, pulled hard the other. And in between was fear and pain in her wrist and the dagger gripped tightly and the fish’s fin tighter still. But there was not enough air, no nearly enough.
They twisted and dove. Lizzie’s shoulders scraped against rock in the narrow places. There was one terrible moment when she thought she would not fit, that she would lose her grip and be trapped between the living and the dead, no body to be found, no hope for her sisters. And then her fear was worse than that. She needed air, needed to draw a clean, dry breath! Her stomach heaved, sucked at her lungs, overrode the signal to keep her mouth and nose shut to the hungry water.
She gasped, kicked and writhed as water flooded her lungs and choked her. She saw spots of light bursting in the darkness. Her head spun. And then one circle of light began to devour the rest. Lizzie swooned.
Then with a rush of water she shot out of the darkness. It was the last thing she knew before her body went limp. She didn’t feel Silverscales turn, released from her hand, and push her up through the deep, cold lake. She didn’t feel the water break, the air touch her face or the ground support her body.
But she felt it when a smooth, round stone hit her forehead with a colossal whack!
The pain pulled her back and sent her stumbling to her feet, then falling to her knees to retch at the side of the lake. She heaved until her stomach ached and her throat was raw. Then she shook and shook with the cold. But she raised her bleary eyes and scanned the water: there!
“Thank you, Silverscales. Thank you for saving me from that place.” She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. The fish swam close.
“There is still time.”
Lizzie only blinked. “Time for what?”
“Time to go back. Before the sun sets.” It nodded westward. The sun was low and red, nearly touching the horizon.
Salt tears flowed down Lizzie’s cheeks now and mingled, hot, with the cold water. “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to die. He’ll— I don’t want to know what he’ll do to me.” She shook her head. “And what he’ll do to them. He won’t keep his word, and even his promise was terrible. I can’t, I can’t.”
The fish regarded her with glassy eyes. “But you are not powerless.”
“I am! I am powerless! I tried and I failed. There’s no way to save them, no—“
The fish swam away from her. It splashed near the shore a few paces away. “You are not powerless, and you are not finished yet.”
Lizzie was hot now, with fever, with anger. “You’re just a stupid fish! A stupid, talking fish!” She reached down and hurled a stone. It shot into the water, but Silverscales didn’t move. She threw another stone, but still the fish swam calmly.
“What’s wrong with you? I’ll kill you! Get away from me— get away!”
She picked up the third stone, bigger and heavier than the others. Smoother. It pulsed in her hand. She turned and looked at it. Staggered sideways and nearly fell into the lake, clutched at the stone that wasn’t a stone. She looked at the fish.
“You needed my help. It was my duty. And my honor.”
Lizzie hung her head. Her cheeks blazed and the feverish sensation made the ground sway, made the horizon wobble. “I’m sorry. I’m so ashamed— forgive me?”
Silverscales flicked its tail. “I hold no debts, but I thank you. Now hurry, please. There is still time. Others need your help. That is your duty.”
“Yes. And honor.” Lizzie’s voice was quiet. Her sisters’ faces flashed before her, and they were so beautiful, so alive. And they would live! She looked all around— and to her amazement, there was the dagger, sloshing in the foam at the edge of the water, dragging gently forward and back. She ran to it. She flew to it! She had never been so happy— it was almost done! Almost! She laid the egg on the beach, gripped the dagger with both hands and raised them high—
“Stop!” The fish’s voice was hoarse, reedy, urgent. Lizzie looked at its glowing face.
“You told me—“
“This is not the way to freedom.”
Lizzie gestured helplessly at the egg and at the sky: the bottom sliver of sun had been swallowed by the land. “If not this, then what? What am I to do? I have a dagger and I have his heart. Once he is killed the bonds will break and we’ll be free, all of us!”
“The prison stones will crumble,” said the fish, “the visible bonds will break, yes. But the unseen walls, the invisible locks and keys… they will remain. You will not truly be free.”
“But he’ll be dead. He won’t be able to do anything to us anymore.”
“Those are not exactly the same things. He will be gone in body. But he will live on in memory.” The fish’s green marble eyes never looked from hers. “If you finish him like this, you make of yourself a prison. That is worse punishment than you have known.”
Lizzie sank to her knees. “Then what? What? Tell me what to do.”
“You will listen?”
“Yes! But tell me quickly! The sun is sinking— please!”
Lizzie crawled to the water’s edge and put her ear to the fish’s mouth. Its words whispered against her skin, tickled her ear, spiraled into her mind. She sat back, slack jawed, and stared. The flat land was cast in long shadows. The black mountain rose up in a wall of shining red. The lake was silver-blue, rippled with black. She closed her eyes and swallowed. She was spent. She was done. It was too much.
Except it wasn’t. She knew that. It was almost too much. But even the tiny space between almost and truly is enough for a miracle to slip through, enough, maybe, for strong magic. Her heart cracked open; she heard it. Then she felt the dagger shift in her hand, grow slim and sleek. When she opened her eyes, the fish was gone and the water was still. In her hand lay the silver needle. On the sand beat Bluebeard’s naked heart.
She grimaced but picked it up from the broken shell. It was hot. Again she thought of the sheep she had been midwife to. There was not so much difference between this slab of red and the placenta. She swallowed hard and stood up. It was not far to the entrance of cave. She found a battered pair of leather slippers in the shadows of a rock and slipped her tired feet into them.
Lizzie threaded the needle into her slip once more and leaped— seven leagues and seven leagues, racing against the fast-approaching night.
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux