The Queen glitters as she undulates through pipes put down before Saint Paul and Minneapolis became kissing cousins, pipes with brick walls and baked clay fittings. It’s dark as ashes where she swims, her way lit only by the bioluminescent patches on her tail, fingers, and toes.
Her skin’s green glow is multiplied, reflected in a hundred tiny points by her piercings: diamond studs that swirl in curved lines down her fins, over her body, along the upswept points of her ears. It’s amazing what falls into toilets, swirls past the S-curves of sinks.
Amazing, and it all finds its way to her eventually. Condoms and diamonds and pills and razor blades for etching so-pretty patterns down her tail to complement the designs she makes by embedding diamonds into her flesh.
Even multiplied a hundredfold, the light is too dim to see by. She doesn’t mind; the current tells her where she is.
Something jostles her, bumping into her tail and exploding into a cloud of watery char. She swats at it with a taloned foot, adding velocity as she speeds toward the River. She is too late for her rendezvous to stop now.
Out she tumbles, through the rusted grill that used to cover the pipe, onto the rocky berm by the old mill ruins. Before her gills can dry out and her book lungs can open up, she’s diving into the water again, feet together and tail cleaving the air behind her, and to hell with what the Parks and Rec Board signs say about turbulent current and staying 500 feet from the River’s edge.
It’s cleaner in the River, harder to breathe without the effluvia of several hundred thousand souls: their wastewater, their urine, their feces, their sweat and blood concentrated in the sewer system, smelling like the souls that shed them. The River doesn’t have a smell. It’s just an emptiness with the faintest taste of industrial chemical that catches at the back of her throat. It doesn’t have a soul.
She kicks against an undertow, nearly tangling her fins in an uprooted tree, roots stirring hair-fine like jellyfish tentacles. It’s not far to the other side, to Boom Island.
Once on land and upright, it takes five dizzying steps before her lungs open up and her gill slits dribble water down smooth pale skin, and two more steps to the dead tree that stands by the Stone Arch Bridge. Her talons serve for pitons; she swarms up the tree, tail swinging loose and heavy behind her, dead weight out of the water.
That’s how she feels, too: heavy and bereft, surrounded by the sound of water but not the taste of it, too close to dry concrete and even drier metal.
Her beloved’s voice assaults her ears.
“You’re late.” The young man on the bridge is short and squat, blue eyes squinting against the darkness. His four-day stubble makes desert sand sounds against the collar of his canvas jacket. Talking to himself again, or at least that’s the way it would look to anyone without the Sight. Just another lunatic, out admiring the Mississippi Mile by moonlight.
She shrugs, unapologetic, refusing to sully her mouth with surface talk. She’s a Queen now, not a tailless, visible-to-humans larva who has to ape human ways to survive.
He scratches his beard, looking at the Metrodome, all lit from the inside, huge and pale like a giant moon come to earth. Looking anywhere but at her single-shadowed self, with no soul to cast a second shadow for him to See.
He’s trying not to hear her thoughts, but they’re so strong. He can’t wall them out like he used to, before she tried to kill herself, went underground, went away, left him—
“That was your fault.” She speaks, goaded into working tongue and lips to form the harsh syllables, draping herself in the tree like a serpent in the Garden of Eden. One webbed hand comes up, traces a spiral of moisture around a nipple-less breast. “If you hadn’t gotten religion—”
She shudders, pausing as she says the hated word. He leaps into the breach, presses the advantage, goaded by the presence of all the diamonds he never bought her, winking from her skin in the streetlights. “You mean giving my life to Jesus, so my soul won’t burn in hell for eternity?”
She’s soulless to his Sight, a construct meant to tempt him to weakness. But even the soulless can be good tools in the right hands, turned to God’s work. That’s what he tells himself, as his heart shrivels up under a weight of old memories.
Old ties—a shared bed only months cold, love between a starving graduate student and something that looked human, wanted so much to be human—those make her bare needlelike teeth and stay where she is long enough to hear his next words.
“Two more buildings gone, up Saint Anthony way. Thought you’d like to know.” He pushes onward, speech stilted, only a flicker of relief there that she didn’t dive back into the River.
“Salamander?” She keeps her query to one word, tries not to start a fight although she’d dearly love to hurt something.
“Salamander,” he confirms. It’s his turn to shudder at the keening sound she makes, a declaration of war. God wouldn’t ask him to chop vegetables with his eyes closed; God wouldn’t want him to ignore the help she can give.
She narrows slit-pupilled eyes, considers, combing absently through inch-long hair with webbed fingers. “I thought I tasted ash in the water. You’re sure?”
“I’ve Seen it,” he tells her, folding his arms across his chest like it’s all her fault that he’s catching glimpses of might-yet-be, feeling traces of Salamander at the burn sites. “Besides. Eight fires in four nights, each one closer to the River. What else could it be?”
She taps her teeth with a fingernail. “If I’m tasting it in the water, it’s getting ready to cross over from larva to King.”
“Not in my city, it won’t.”
He’s full of grim resolve and heartache, overprotective as always. She means to give him a reminder. “Not in our city, you mean. Not ever.”
It’s That God that won’t share, not her. Selfish, selfish God, but that’s the way of males, all males, human or Salamander King. He winces as the thought laps over into a corner of his brain, all regretful tenterhooks and images of pretty, pretty razors. “Stay out of my—”
She looks up, finishes the thought for him. “—head, dammit.”
He steps back, the connection between them thinning to a thread as she holds his gaze. It hurts, but she doesn’t flicker an eyelash. It’s hurt since the night That God stepped into his heart and left him with no room for her. She’s used to it. “The fires?”
“Shed, tree, garage, then the rest are houses.” He doesn’t need the psychic link to know what she’s asking. “All contained by the fire department.”
“They do good work.” She twitches the tip of her tail, dismissive, impatient.
Not good enough, she hears him not-say. Not like we could do—have done. Her tail stills as she remembers when, as a larva, she still looked human enough to roam the city at will.
Water responded to her thoughts in double-handfuls then, icing over to freeze would-be Salamander Kings in place long enough to be dealt with, splashing in great gouts from the sky to quench the fires they started. Then, he was a laughing presence at her back, muttering love poetry and the laws of thermodynamics under his breath as they shed Salamander blood to keep the city safe from the flames.
“Things are different now,” he says, face somber, brooding.
She lifts her chin in agreement, gives voice to a hunch based on the way the ash in the water tasted and her own instincts, equivalent to his Sight. “Tomorrow night. He—it—needs a bigger fire to cross over.”
She’d needed an entire stretch of river. His stomach tries to bottom out on the memory of falling and the impact like a car collision on the freeway. Sweat prickles on his palms. “How much bigger?”
She doesn’t want to answer, hears the vertigo in his voice like an overlay on the memory of death by drowning. Gnawing at her lip, she twists in the tree, scans the bank and points at the Pillsbury factory, its smokestacks jutting upward like double phalluses. “That big.”
He draws in a quick breath, wants to object, but his Sight won’t let him. There’s certain knowledge in her voice, in the fit of her mind against his like interlocking fingers. “I can’t . . . do it alone. Meet me here?”
She hesitates, nods. This is bigger than all the things he can’t say, or at least more immediately threatening. “At midnight. And one more thing.”
He wipes his hands down his jeans, tries to control a flinch of apprehension. “What?”
Now she laughs, soundlessly, humor wrapping around him as her gill slits expand and water bubbles out of them. She just wants her trenchcoat back, the leather one he bought her, ghost-grey and too narrow in the shoulders to ever fit him. She dives into the water before he can react to the request, tail flickering through the bare branches of the tree like quicksilver.
He almost laughs, but doesn’t; instead, his shoulders relax a little bit. He lights a cigarette, takes one long drag, then tosses it out into the water like an offering. He listens, but he can’t hear the hiss of fire meeting water over the sound of the falls.
He goes home, sleeps, prays in unfinished sentences. He works on the footnotes in his thesis, “Apocalyptic Imagery in Scripture: Where Literal Meets Figurative.” He drinks warm beer and sweats in the still air. There’s no air conditioning in his apartment; everything he tries just makes him hotter.
He gives up on the thesis the third time he misspells the word Talmudic. Instead, he stares into the dustiest corner of the bedroom closet, pokes through pairs of sneakers brittle with sweat, tosses aside an unused #3 Frisbee golf disc. His fingers find the trenchcoat before his eyes do, telling him that what he is touching was once skin.
If he were to close his eyes, it would almost feel like her skin. A flicker of amusement, distant, and his fingers tighten in the leather as he presses it to his face.
It smells like dust, but the way it feels . . .
Somewhere, he knows she is sleeping, dreaming peacefully, tail tangled between her legs and her hands on her own breasts. The longer he holds the coat, the stronger the link gets.
He throws the coat onto the sofa, keeps his fingers away from it, but he can’t keep his mind on the Bible that opens to 3 John, a page before Revelation.
Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health. . . .
Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest. . . .
Beloved . . . I shall shortly see thee. . . .
He slams the Bible shut, paces the confines of the apartment: twelve steps across the living room, ten steps up, six steps to the window in the turret bedroom. He paces around the circular room a few more times for emphasis, like water circling the drain.
He should be working on his thesis. Instead, he storms back down the stairs and snatches up the coat. The door slams behind him but does not lock. He does not care.
Fifty-eight broken beer bottles and three cuts on his hands later, he is ready to face her again. Cleaning up Father Hennepin Bluffs has cooled his temper, and the tedious, disgusting task provides nausea as a wall between them.
Fringe benefits of public service, he thinks, mouth twitching into that almost-smile. Evening is still hanging on; he has hours yet, and he spends them tossing rocks into the River until the River disappears into the gloom. The rocks themselves become indistinct as they leave his hands, and soon he can’t even see his fingers for the dark.
Can’t see, until she surfaces in the middle of the water, staring at him. Then he sees everything through her slit-pupilled eyes; it makes him dizzy to see the dried blood in a smear across his forehead where he scratched at his hairline.
“It’s not midnight yet,” he says, looking anywhere but at her as she steps out of the water. There’s a jagged-edged bottle top to his right; he picks it up, shoves it in his pocket, and tries to think about hellfire and vials of plague.
She hears the subtext that he’s trying so hard to not-say. Beloved. But she doesn’t smile, doesn’t flicker an eyelid, keeps one webbed hand around her own heart and withdraws back into the River so fast that all he can see is darkness and the glowing blobs of streetlamps, up above on the old railroad bridge. “We don’t have that much time. I tasted kerosene in the River.”
He swears, and the words are razors, pretty, pretty razors for slicing open her heart instead of her skin. “Damn it to hell!”
He, not it, she wants to say. That God of yours poisons your mind, makes you think of my kind as things. Instead, she picks the trenchcoat up from the riverbank where he laid it, shrugs it on and lets the hem fall around her calves with the heaviness of velvet. Her voice floats over the river sounds, loud in the night-hush of faint sirens and louder engine sounds. “Your God can do what He likes once the Salamander’s dead. I intend to kill it first, though. Alone, if you’re not fast enough.”
It’s more of a question than she lets it sound. He straightens up, scrambles up the bluff, running for the factory. His pride is up; he’s still fast enough, always will be.
She climbs next to him, runs at his side, book lungs drawing in raw air, nitrogen like fire on the sensitive undersides of her gills. Just like old times, except for the tail that won’t stop tangling around her ankles.
The scrape of a match greets their arrival. Flame sweeps out across the grey-brown grass, toward concrete that is still radiating sun-heat back to the sky. The smoke is thick, the smell of kerosene thicker. Fire traces widening spirals around the lawn in random patterns.
He charges in without thinking, inhales a lungful of smoke and doubles over coughing, the heat like a fist to his face.
“Stupid,” she mutters, only a few heartbeats behind him. “Sloppy.” He’s forgotten already: this is her job, has always been her job. Calling moisture to her like a coat, she hauls him out, shoves him to the side, and dives in herself to look around with eyes used to silt-filled water. Smoke is not so different than that.
There’s the larva: a shadowy figure, man-height and man-shaped, swinging kerosene in liquid arcs over the walls in great looping half-circles. She reaches out a hand, tries to call the water to her, but she’s too late. The larva is already dousing himself with the last of the kerosene, and the flames spring to him and take hold on his skin.
She’s too wide open: moisture turns to steam and evaporates all around her as she feels the larva flinch, scream, and then welcome the pain. The sound pins her to the ground, makes her remember her own plunge off Washington Street Bridge, the despair that drove her to it, the crazy urge to drown. . . .
She’s frozen; scarf over his face, he shoulders past her, uses her eyes to get his bearings, and then runs forward, at the Salamander larva, already changing into a King, his tail growing before their shared vision.
He doesn’t get far; a snap of the Salamander’s fingers and he’s on fire. The pain pulls her out of her memories; he can feel her snap back into focus. He can hear someone cursing—him—as the flames are quenched by water on the verge of boiling. He drops with the pain, curls around it on the ground, pulls his hands in toward his abdomen and bites his tongue to keep from screaming.
He can feel his palms crisping, although the flames are gone. The smell of grilled pork hangs heavy in the air. The water is slipping out of her control, turning to steam even as she summons it to meet the conflagration; the old mill is four stories high, and the first two stories are already ablaze, stone facade cracking from the heat.
The Salamander is laughing, voice cracking as it finishes the change. Salamander King, with nothing to stop it, intending to set the city on fire and live in the flames like she does in the sewers, and the only thing that matters in her life is wounded, broken maybe too badly to be repaired.
She doesn’t stop to think, just charges forward, steam biting at her skin, a hissing aura around her. The hem of her trenchcoat is turning to char, and her ankles are blistering, but she tackles the Salamander King, puts her legs around his hips, hugs him to her breasts, twists her tail around his ankles, and hangs on for dear life. “Not in our city, motherfucker!”
The words hurt more than anything she’s ever said. Flames flow down her throat, scorching her vocal cords, melting them to the sides of her larynx, and he can feel her dying. He lies on the ground, and screams like the damned, lets her use his voice like he used her eyes.
That’s the fact pulls him to his feet, makes him stagger up and into the conflagration that can’t hurt him any worse than his burns already do. There’s a broken bottle in his pocket; he pulls it out and stabs with the jagged points, plunging them again and again into flesh and flames. The Salamander King leaks boiling lifeblood out, over the ground, screams superheated steam and thrashes, but even dying, she holds him fast. He can’t see; smoke and tears blind him, but he drives the glass in, again and again, until the Salamander King stops struggling against the webbed and tailed grip that holds him immobile. Until the Salamander King is dead.
Then he stabs the corpse some more for good measure.
It’s not enough, and he knows it.
The fire department is quick to respond; the sirens jolt him awake. He thinks he’s only passed out for a second, reaches for confirmation and feels . . .
. . . sensation and desire, and no room for him in either of those things: pain and the driving need to return to the water. He drowns in her feelings as he picks her up, untangles her from the ribboned flesh that was once a Salamander King, staggers to the River with her cindered weight over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.
“Oh . . .” The exclamation is inadvertent, forced out through his blistered lips as he jolts his way down to the River at top speed, sliding on gravel and mud. There’s so much pain, so very little blood, and she is heavy like a corpse in his grasp.
He places her in the River without haste, freeing his half-melted grip from her body.
Water seeps into the charred ruin of her skin, grey-white under his fingers. Her body spasms and then breaks apart, disintegrating into a swirl of ash in the current.
But that’s not what he feels in his mind.
The cessation of pain is a benediction. He reaches out with his mind and feels her, stronger than ever, examining her new body, stretching out her senses and delighting in filling all the empty spaces from bank to bank and examining all the things half-drowned in the silt of her riverbed, up the tributary sewers and creeks, and into every house through the pipes and faucets. . . .
He can’t breathe in the thin air; his ears ring like semis are rattling by. No wonder the River felt so empty.
She was meant to fill it.
That was why he could never See her soul to save it. She doesn’t have one; she is one, saved and shining and pure.
She laughs inside his head as he aches with revelation: the problem was never God, but his perception of God. The problem was never that God didn’t want to share, but that his own heart was simply too small.
Her old body is diluting by the minute, washing away downstream, leaving him with a half-handful of diamond studs. Tears drip into the water, a trace of him in her. She swallows them up without recrimination or accusation and offers him healing, a gift for a gift.
She’s something else, now. Something more than a Queen. Naiad, undine, siren . . . Empress. Something he will never be able to hold.
The water against his now-unburnt hands feels like a caress. He closes his eyes as he feels her love, her forgiveness. Closes his fingers, too, and puts the diamonds in his pockets.
“I’ll keep them safe for you,” he promises, while she plays with the steel-reinforced toes of his workboots, trying to seep past rubberized canvas to the flesh inside.
She doesn’t need them any more; she wears moonlight like jewelry on her surface. He hesitates, then shrugs, offers her the best exit line his aching heart will allow. “To remember you by, then.”
A hint of irritated slit-pupilled gaze in the way the current swirls, the Falls roar. He’d damn well not be trying to find himself a new partner. She’s still here, and it’s still their city to preserve from the flames. Together.
The pressure in his chest eases. Still partners.
This time, he allows himself to laugh. She relents, laughs with him.
In the sound, he can hear God laughing too.