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Undine, by T.C. Padgett (PG-13)

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

The miller was hanged by his own mill gate for the murder of Kate Hutchins. The wedding ring taken from her finger had sealed his fate. While he swore to the end that he had only happened upon her body in the stream by his mill, the admission that he allowed it to continue downstream did him no favors.

The silver ring was returned by the village constable to Kate’s betrothed, John Lawson. Sitting alone in his modest cabin, John clutched it tightly in his hand for three days, shirking food and company, bathing in quiet sorrow. He continued clutching it at the funeral. Lucy, Kate' s sister, tried to meet his gaze several times during the ceremony, but his face never turned from the empty casket that sat before the crowd. Later, as the sermon ended and the villagers returned to their homes, Lucy made her way toward him.

“John, I'm sorry,” she whispered. She looked to clutch his hand, but seeing it still closed resigned herself to lean on his shoulder. “If there's anything I can do...”

John was silent. Lucy lingered for a few minutes before patting his shoulder and walking away, casting one last, longing look before moving on. Rain was starting again.

Leaning down toward the casket, John opened it slightly, finding nothing but the plain wood. He didn't think too much about why, but he had to be sure it was empty. What a waste, he thought.

John held the lid open and with a heavy noise from the back of this throat he opened the final dam inside of himself. The dark sky over the island wept with him. When finished, he placed the ring down into the casket, trying his best to absorb anything he could from it as his fingertips slowly left the metal.

“I love you, Kate.”

The village of Undine sat on the Isle of Shoals, former place of banishment for the radical, Thomas Morton. Morton observed the ways of the world with a different lens than his Puritan brothers, who viewed Morton's lens as clouded by earthly desires. He was punished accordingly and cast aside to await an earthy-tasting brand of divine judgment in his homeland of England. Morton remained well-connected, and though those sympathetic to him could not save him they could still join him in exile. Myles Standish and his ilk on the mainland were already eager to forget the man who had tainted their endeavor with his paganism. Thus, Undine, a village made up of both natives and fellow pilgrims, existed beneath their notice. Morton, seeing after a time that his village was in good hands, stole away on his own back to England, eager to continue his work. Even without its founder, the village of Undine grew in hidden waves as Puritan life on the nearby continent developed.

John Lawson made his living through woodworking. While he never spoke these feelings, it brought his soul joy to see the journey of the lumber from the nearby forest, working the wood into a sound form with respect to the resource itself. As the population of the village grew, more housing was constantly needed, and John found it easy to lose himself in the long hours. It was something he relished now.

John and Lucy wed a year after Kate's death. They had always been friends, but after her younger sister's death Lucy made a point to visit him often, offering whatever comfort he would allow. Rumors floated in the breeze when the news emerged – some welcomed the wedding as a comfort to John's still-ailing soul; others sneered that Lucy had finally worn him down.

While John threw himself into his work, Lucy made headway into the local clergy. Occasional rumors of Undine's existence would be blown over the sea to their brethren on the continent, and it seemed those same winds were blowing Puritanical influence back into Undine. As the original village leaders grew old and ill, new heads emerged to steer the way. It was decided that the influence of the Christian church needed expansion. Lucy embraced the expansion with fervor; many speculated this was her way of easing the pain surrounding her sister's murder. For what certainty could Lucy have to the fate of her sister's soul if she did not immerse herself in God’s teachings?

One issue that had recently arisen was the matter of Mayday. An annual tradition in Undine and beloved by their founder, the celebration brought the entire village out and culminated with a ring dance around a delicately carved wooden maypole in the center of the village. However, many were now coming to believe that eternal salvation did not mix with such celebrations, that the souls of the youth were at risk. Lucy agreed, and while John did not discuss the matter with her it gave him pause. But, when she brought the matter up to him, he would only sigh and nod, and she took his complicity as agreement.

One night, wide awake as Lucy snored beside him, John swore that every time he shut his eyes, he could hear his name being spoken softly, almost-imperceptibly through the rain tapping on his roof. The cabin was creaking from the ocean breeze. Taking his pipe and some tobacco from the bedside table, he walked quietly outside.

Standing in the doorway, still in his pajamas and smoking as he listened to the rain, John felt he could hear the whisper a little louder now. He snuffed his pipe and, growing blind to the oddity of it all, started listening closely. Was he going mad, or was the voice coming from the forest?

John couldn't help himself – slowly, he crept between the trees. He lost himself in the dark wood, ignoring the cracking under his bare feet. Soon, he saw her – in a small pond enshrined by thick pine, a woman was bathing. Her white skin and golden hair shone even on this rainy night. John realized that the sound he had taken as his name was the woman's soft singing. But why would those sound so similar?

The woman turned. John was overcome. His consciousness fell to the night.

When Lucy awoke the following morning, she found John in bed beside her, sleeping soundly. She was surprised as he usually started work long before she woke. Watching his smiling face, she decided not to wake him, instead heading toward their small kitchen to prepare breakfast. Then she noticed something odd – several muddy footprints leading from the cabin door to the bed. She scoffed at John's sleeping frame as she cleaned up the mess.

When John woke, he and Lucy had coffee in silence. When they were finished, he met her gaze and spoke. “Lucy...we need to keep the maypole.”

She looked at him with concern. “John, what's wrong?”

“I feel it...I know it. We all need the maypole.”

Lucy shook her head. “It is out of our hands. The church fathers will decide.”

That day the village leaders put out their final decree – the Mayday celebration could not continue. Being torn on the matter, the new leaders of Undine had for the first time sent word to the continent seeking advice. The response from the mainland was unanimous – cease, or the souls of the villagers would be forfeit.

Lucy was surprised to see the emotion on John's face. “Oh, John. You must believe that it is for our own good!”

She smiled, but he would not meet her eyes. He felt betrayed in a way he couldn't define.

Another sleepless night. John could again hear the soft singing. His memories of the prior night's adventure had been all but forgotten during the day, like a fleeting dream. But now he felt the dream could be recalled. He crept slowly out of bed and left the house.

The ancient oak and brush seemed almost to open before him. He returned to the pond, and again the woman was there, her skin like moonlight given form. When she looked at him with piercing, ocean-blue eyes he felt at peace. He had nothing to hide from her. Stripping down, he joined her in the pond.

Later, as he lay naked on the cold ground, the woman slid out of the water and placed her hand on a nearby tree. John watched as the bark appeared to tremble and shift, new patterns emerging at her touch. Their eyes met, and he understood.

The next morning Lucy awoke to find John up and working on etchings. When asked, he made no effort to hide his intention – these were for the maypole. “John, you know what was decided!”

She was startled by the seriousness in his eyes. “Lucy, I have to do it. I can't explain it, but it…it is the right thing to do.”

“The right thing?! The right thing would be following law. Following God! John, I can't allow this.”

“Then leave.” John said it without thinking.

Lucy frowned. “I have my own business. I'll keep yours for now, but, John, don't ask me to choose. Think of yourself, your soul! Think of us. End this foolishness.”

When Lucy returned home that evening, she was startled to find John missing. She was on the verge of running for help when the earth itself gave her answer – mud from the recent rain revealed footprints leading into the woods. What on earth is he thinking? she wondered. Entering the house and putting on a pair of John's thick boots, she trod awkwardly into the woods.

The forest seemed to close around her. She feared becoming lost, but every time she thought of turning back, she felt a presence, some whispering in the trees, calling her forward. So, she kept moving, even as her skirt and bonnet became ripped and stained.

In the heart of the forest her husband lay on the ground, naked, writhing in what she assumed was great pain. Above him leered what at first looked like a woman, but, as Lucy focused, she realized it was…something else. Its skin was scaly and shone even in the dark. Its golden hair spread out like a blazing aureole around its head. The creature had no legs, but rather a long, serpentine tail that curled and sunk into the secluded pond behind.

The creature rose its face up to meet Lucy’s gaze. Lucy felt several emotions at once – fear, confusion, sadness, and a sudden familiarity. But for what? She felt compelled to step forward, but as she did the creature let out a shriek that seemed to shake the forest.

John smiled at the sound, but Lucy didn't notice – she had already turned to run as heavy rain began again. Lucy suddenly realized she couldn't locate the path she'd taken into the woods. Feeling a constant presence behind her, a whistle of wind that wouldn't leave her ear, she ran blindly, uncaring as her clothes were rent. She ran until finally emerging on the edge of a high bank. There below her was the old miller's house, abandoned after his hanging years ago. The water was flowing furiously below as she leaned against a tree, trying to catch her breath as the rain continued to fall, the wind continued to blow.

Then, in her ear, a woman's voice – “Sister…why?”

Lucy screamed. Her body convulsed, and she plummeted into the water.

When John awoke, he was all alone, nude in the damp forest. He felt a desire to stay, to become so still that he might become some mossy lump from which something could grow. He took a long gaze into the pond behind him – it had flooded over, as though in the act of swallowing the world around him. He couldn't find his clothes. Without care, he walked back to the village.

What he found barely resembled the village he had left – flooding had taken down most of the shelters, and the inhabitants must have scattered as there was no one around. John returned to what was left of his home and grabbed his tools. Sitting among them was a familiar silver ring. John stared at it for a long time before placing it on his finger.

Moving to the maypole, he continued his work on the etchings.

Later, when Puritans from the mainland finally stepped foot into Undine, the maypole greeted them. It was adorned all the way up with two intermingling serpents etched into the wood. At the top, the maypole was crowned with deer antlers, bent to resemble some twisted halo.

One of the men spat at the sight. Tiny lizards ran around his feet.

“Burn it.”

The smell of the fire did not reach John Lawson's nose. He stood on a shore at the other side of the forest, looking out over the waves breaking against the island. The ocean was beautiful – why had it taken him so long to notice? He felt it calling him.

He looked down at the ring on his finger, tears falling onto his palm. “I love you, Kate,” he said aloud. He felt the ocean answer as he slowly, resolutely, walked into the water.

“I love you, too.”

artwork copyright Mikey Hope

story copyright T.C. Padgett

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