Refractions in Salt Water by Pauline Jérémie (Lucent Dreaming Issue 9)

My legend is written in the shadow of a king whose name has been spoken too often. It is hidden between the lines of the tales about my son, the brother I have found, the lovers I have had, in the same overlooked spaces my sisters’ and mother’s names were never written.


My own name lies in fluidities. Morgan, Morgen, Orva, in Irish, Breton, Welsh – the very essence of my existence in the hands of the man telling my story. Intangible, ethereal, never in focus. At once I am a fay, a maiden, a queen, a sister, sometimes a mother. I span centuries, countries, cultures, seep unawares and unassuming into the cracks of every praying man’s hands, the ink of every storyteller, the ears of every child put to sleep with a tale of knights and magic. But the stories are never my own. My whole purpose, always, is to serve the men in them. Here, I save a knight’s life with a potion that bears my name. There, I mother the lionknight.


But I finally hold my story in my own hands, control the tale that has been forced upon me, and as I find my voice – I begin to tell it.


I was sea-born, ephemeral, from a king father and a nameless mother.


My childhood on the Isle of Apples was a sweet thing, a time of softness and candour, pure. My hair smelled of seaweed and my skin glistened with the marine mist, and once a month my sisters and I would soak our dresses in salt water to wash away the signs of our womanhood.


Avalon is home to my heart and blood. I have crushed its shells with my feet treading its beaches, picked its sweet fruit, suffered its temperament, felt its soil under my knees and on my cheeks every time I have knelt down to pray to gods I no longer have any use for. I can feel the presence of every soul that has inhabited the island still, every man, child, woman. At night when my dreams populate the realms of a future I cannot change and paint the faces which have yet to haunt me, I wake up to the smell of fermenting apples and my sisters’ hair and I am home again.


My sisters. I have truly been blessed, I realise, when my eyes roam the dining room of our castle and I see the refraction of the same face, my own face, eight times over – with thick cheeks of reddened, sea-whipped skin, the same deep, round eyes that have seen past the realm of the living, and the same heavy, dark hair that smells of seaweed.


All eight of them make up who I am, and I, in return, make up an eighth of each of my powerful, beautiful maiden sisters. Despite what the stories may say, how they paint us in colours of rage and vengeance we have never seen before, the image of them engraved on the fabric of my brain is delicate. It is the image of rabbits turned into dogs turned into horses, of horses turned into dogs turned into rabbits. It is the spirits of ancestors conjured up on the beach at nightfall, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, whose gentle touch we would bask in and cherish against the stormy winds of Avalon in winter. It is the feeling of bringing a fallen bird back to life. It is the sight of a heart-shaped bite in a ripe apple.


The source of our power cannot be found outwardly, but within ourselves. The stories will hurry to name mages as our trainers, but they fail to see what was already there. Those men showed up on our shores with magic boiling inside the palms of their hands and lips, ready to teach us the lessons we had found out for ourselves long ago.


As infants, our hazy feverish dreams were already predicting the future of mankind. As children, pale-skinned and knee-scraped, we would turn ourselves into cats and mice and chase each other through our island’s orchards, the smell of ripening fruit bitter against the marine scent. When we became teenagers, we would see in the night sky — not the stars we were meant to — but the souls of each person we would be bringing back to life. None of this was ever taught to us. We were born in numbers so we could foster each other’s strength, bear it inside us like the children some of us would never grow to have. For this, I will thank no Merlin, no wizard, no magician that claims to have made us who we are. Instead, I thank the gods that brought us together in blood, our parents for letting us grow into ourselves like the seeds on our land grew into trees. Above all, I thank our own willingness of heart, for allowing us to see the beauty and promises of eight others who wanted to be a part of our growth as much as their own.


Those days seem far away now. With time, my story has been soured, my soul turned dark. I have been made into a villain, a whore: bitter, jealous, power-hungry. On the pages of other men’s tales, mine has been made into one of greed and revenge, one where all traces of the tenderness of my childhood, and the purity of my sisters, is dissolved like foam into the sea. I often wonder why my powers were used to serve something sombre, something with an intent I do not recognise within myself or in my family, while the magic of my master’s remains just that – magic.


We always knew our innocence would crumble the day our half-brother would be rowed to the safety of the shores of Avalon. Some of us heard it in the call of the sea, some of us saw it in the stars on a clear spring night, and in the leaves of an apple tree, or the lines of each other’s faces. But the curse of those who see fate is to know not to meddle with it, and thus our brother joined us, bloodied and lifeless, in the untouched realm of our childhood.

Something in him seemed familiar, yet so incredibly foreign, both in land and in heart. His dimming eyes had the same depth as ours did, the depth of those who have seen too much. His hair felt as thick under the palms of my hands as that of my sisters’, but his cheeks were jagged, harsh, his body roughened by the wars he had sought. The blood in his veins, somehow, ran thicker.


I crafted his treatment with the care any sister would have, the same way I would have done it for any of my own. I harvested seaweed from creeks no one could reach on foot, plucked hairs off the backs of golden horses, picked berries from bushes only found at the bottoms of caves that the tides would fill every other hour. It took me days to put together, to find the strength to summon my obsolete gods, to place within my brother’s potion all that made me who I am, made him who he was – made us who we were.


He accepted his treatment with gratitude, but without grace. His body was present with us, weakened and wounded as it was, yet his mind was miles away on a land we had never set foot on before, in kingdoms we had never heard of. It was stuck in battles filled with men on horses, with violence flowing out of open wounds, with bodies scattered on a floor that deserved peace. He was not like us, and this we felt the second he stepped foot on our sacred land, and long after he had left Avalon.


He stayed long enough to recover, not long enough for us to grow to love him. His essence was tainted by something we had never seen before, something caustic and charged with an energy that flowed differently to ours. Intuition told us to never get close to it. Just like we had done the work we were best at, we let our maids do theirs. They looked after him during his stay, cleaned his cuts and brought him his suppers, changed his sheets when his blackened blood had soaked through to the mattress, washed his sweat-covered body. We would watch them go into his room with bundles of clean cloths and come out moments later with shaky hands and a slope to their shoulders.


We never asked questions, but we understood. We had felt the changes happen to us too. Our ancestors had grown more distant, our skies clouded, and when we pressed our ears to the sandy beaches of Avalon, we could no longer hear the answer from those that lived in the depths of our seas. Our powers stopped bubbling in our veins, and at night our dreams became black. The blood stopped flowing between our legs. Our fruit grew sour.


By the time he had gone, our trees had lost all their leaves and winter had settled over the island in thick coats of fog and frost. And we, despite our distance, had lost an innocence we had strived to cultivate within ourselves, within others, and all around us – organic, soft, earth-bound. My heart felt heavier, and I could feel its pain echoing in the chests of my sisters. We kept the castle doors closed that winter.


Though our bodies showed no changes, no cuts and no blood pouring out of wounds, I felt that in some way we had gone through the same war our brother had. We had come to know what rage felt like, had lost the essence that made us who we were. And when I came to look around the dining room of our castle and saw the refraction of my own face eight times over, I no longer recognised any of those versions of myself.

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