Goldfish

by Laura Bickle


He is always leaving things in her safekeeping. Swords, keys, grimoires, a grail – over time, he’s placed many precious things in her hands to hide in the darkness under the river silt. She remembers where each is hidden:
under rocks, in the roots of trees, even in the bellies of ancient creatures.

But she will always remember when he brought her something truly unusual to hide.

“Danae.”

The old man’s whisper rattles across the frozen lake, blowing a dusting of snow over its surface. He leans heavily on an ironwood staff. Blood gleams blackly through the boiled wool of his coat.

“Danae. I need your help.”

Something dark and sinuous seethes under the ice. The surface begins to crack, a deep bass splinter that shook snow from the distant trees. Like a sea lion exploding on an ice floe, a figure surges up in a wave of water,
stepping delicately out on the ice in bare feet. Frost glitters in her hair, stiffens the mossy cloak draped over her shoulders.

She rubs silt from a sleepy grey eye, squinting. This is not the lake she’d fallen asleep in. This water is further north and west – more brittle and cold. Glancing up at the stars, she sees that she’s slept for a very long time.

“You came.” The man’s voice is breathless.

“I’ve never ignored your summons.” She looks more closely at him. She still recognizes him. He appears to be a man in his sixtieth year, face weathered in a tracing of deep lines, though his blue eyes are ageless. Has it truly
been that long since she’s seen him?

“Are you moving backward or forward, this time?” she asks him.

“Backward, I think.”

Her nostrils flare. She smells blood on him, not all of it his. “Are you hurt?” She has never experienced such a thing, herself, so she can’t be certain.

“Not badly.” His breath makes ghosts in the crystalline air. “I have something valuable to commit to your safekeeping.”

He gestures to the tree line. From the darkness, shadows gather. Shapes of men, women, and children, smelling of fear and blood and gunpowder. As they draw near, Danae can see their ragged clothing, the slackness of skin. Each
bears a yellow cloth star emblem on their clothing. Danae is unfamiliar with this particular coat of arms. The smallest one, a little girl, looks at Danae with wide, heavily-lashed eyes.

“I need you to hide them for me.”

She blinks at the old man. A nicitating membrane flicks over her eyes, an unconscious gesture of doubt.

“This will not be easy for them,” she tells him.

“What we’re hiding them from will be much, much worse than any spell you would put them under.”

From the forest, something like thunder rumbles. She hears tinny shouts, a staccato ring of something mechanical rattling ice from the tree branches. The small knot of people flinches. Danae doesn’t know what it is, but it must truly be something fearsome.

“Danae, please.”

He sounds desperate. She nods slowly, extends her hand. The little girl’s mother takes her to Danae. Bravely, the little girl reaches out for Danae’s hand. Her hand feels very warm in Danae’s. Danae closes her eyes. Under
Danae’s touch, the girl’s flesh grows colder, softer.

She opens her eyes and her cupped hands. Within them is a tiny goldfish, brilliant orange against the frost-pale glisten of Danae’s palms. The girl is gone.

Danae kneels and drops the fish gently to the water.

One after the other, the refugees become fish under her touch. They come to her hands willingly, without fear. Danae wonders what it is they are running from that they would commit themselves so unquestioningly to the
black water.

When the last one flickers away under the brilliant ice, Danae asks the old man: “Are you coming?”

The old man shakes his head. “Take them back home. I’ll be along, soon.”

As Danae slips back under the water, she sees him adjust his strange grey hat and stride purposefully back into the forest.

‘Soon,’ for a wizard, is a very subjective estimate of time.

#

The old man sits on a park bench, feeding ducks. The ducks are getting used to the air raid sirens, and are brave enough to emerge from the pond for bits of stale bread.

The old man isn’t as old as he was in the winter. The lines around his mouth are softer, and his hair has darkened underneath his fedora. He has less control over time as it wears on. It seems to cycle faster without him.

“Danae,” he breathes over the water.

Danae is more familiar with this pond. She has been watching the people through the clear water, listening and learning about this new age. The fish tell her stories, too. What she has learned both intrigues and frightens her.

She walks out of the water with no fanfare, no blistering of water, wearing a simulacrum of the clothes she saw a woman wearing last week: a red suit with a nipped-in waist and broad lapels, a felt hat, and her hair carefully
coiffed.

The man emits a low whistle.

She’s still barefoot, though. She climbs over the bank and sits beside him on the park bench, hands him a twisted piece of metal.

“I keep finding these at the bottom. What is it?”

The man takes it gingerly. “It’s what they call a bunker buster.”

“A weapon?”

“Yes. A terrible one, at that.”

She looks at him with those relentless steel-grey eyes. “I’m glad that you’re safe.” The ducks crowd around her feet. All creatures love Danae. She’s wearing stockings, and their down sticks to them.

The no-longer-old man sighs. “Me, too.” His eyes flicker down. “Did…did the goldfish survive?”

Danae rises and walks to the edge of the pond. Flecks of orange emerge from the duckweed and circle around her feet. All creatures love Danae.

One by one, she scoops them out of the water. As she tenderly places them on the ground, they flop once, twice, then reclaim their human shape in a flurry of scales and skin.

The man is counting under his breath, shepherding the people to the drier side of the bank. Their expressions are dazed; Danae expects that they will remember little more than dreams of fish. The little girl looks back at her, grins broadly; Danae suspects that she remembers.

“Thank you, Danae” Merlyn says, watching her step back into the safety of the pond.

She inclines her head, her beautiful suit-illusion becoming ruined by the water as she walks away.

“Someday, wizard, you’ll be back for the sword.”

Merlyn glances at the little girl. “Perhaps sooner than you think.”

# # #

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