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art by Jeffrey Redmond

Innocence, Rearranged

Annie Bellet in an incurable nerd who holds a BA in English and a BA in Medieval Studies and thus can speak a smattering of useful languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Welsh. Her short fiction has appeared in AlienSkin, Contrary, and Daily Science Fiction as well as multiple anthologies and collections. Her first fantasy novel, A Heart in Sun and Shadow, came out in 2011. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and a very demanding Bengal cat.

***Editor's Note: This story includes mature and potentially disturbing themes. It is not for all readers***
Mai goes for her daily run, glad that spring has arrived and freed her from the treadmill. She usually makes a circuit down through the gardens but today she turns and runs uphill, toward the cherry orchard. At first, her calves feel like lumps of wood, but she warms up and finds her stride. When Love, who she has started to call Pembroke in her head as a tiny rebellion, told her to start running two years ago, she hated it. Now, this is her favorite time each day. This is also the only time she is allowed to wear pants.
Pembroke seems to think that running will keep her from turning into a woman. Her period, which made him so unhappy before, has stopped. The dresses he buys her hang on her bones and she feels less like the little girl he wants her to be than a doll made from sticks.
The cherry trees are in bloom. Pink and white petals drift down, fragrant snow, and she raises her hands, brushing branches to shake down more as she runs past. Mai crosses to the end of the orchard and looks up to the rocky, sparsely forested hills beyond. She knows there is no one and nothing out there because Pembroke has told her so many times over the years. Only the villa below her and the people who work the gardens, people who do not meet her eyes. People who speak a language she cannot remember.
Pembroke has business today. He is locked in his office. Mai does not think he will mind if she runs for more than her usual hour. He will not even notice as long as she is back before tea.
She sets out up the hill. Her feet leave impressions in the moss, and small brown speckled birds call out to each other as she pushes through untamed branches. The villa, when she looks back, is invisible, but Mai thinks she can find her way back by going downhill when she's ready.
It is midmorning when she hears the sound of a stream. She follows the fresh scent of water, wishing she'd brought a bottle along with her. Pembroke only drinks water from bottles. Mai dips her hands in the clear brook and splashes cold water on her face, but doesn't drink. She follows the stream back down the hill as it curves off to the right of where she climbed up.
The stream ends in a pond tucked away in the clumped shade of trees Mai doesn't know the name of. Tiny purple flowers drip from the trees as though garlanded there by an invisible hand. The area around the pond is pebbled with dark green stones that shine brighter green where the water laps against them. Mai picks one up and rubs the smooth surface with her thumb.
Jade. The floor of this place is jade. It glints in the water as well until the depths swallow too much light for her to see down further. Mai wonders if Pembroke made this place, but the untrimmed trees and sheltered wildness here don't seem like his style. He likes his world controlled, orderly, everything in its place.
The sun hangs overhead, beating down and the skin beneath her T-shirt is prickly with sweat. Mai hesitates and then strips off her clothing, her eyes darting around the glade, looking everywhere but down at herself. She folds her clothing with precise movements, lays them on top of her shoes, and then walks into the water.
The pond is colder than the stream and her jaw clenches as she slides in. Her braid floats like a snake behind her. Mai kicks off the bottom, swimming out to the middle of the pond. It is nothing like swimming in the infinity pool on the deck at the villa. She dunks her head and opens her eyes under water.
There is no sting of chlorine and the sunlight paints shadow worlds in the depths below. The pond is very deep, the jade beach dropping off into darkness. Down in that dark shines a glint of gold. Then of blue. Gold, then blue. Something moves in the water far beneath her and Mai comes up for air.
The water around her churns and she screams, forgetting how to swim for a moment in her panic. She goes under and her legs kick at the swirling water. Then a wave, rising from deep within the pond, lifts her up to the surface and carries her back to the shore.
Mai gasps on the beach, her body half in the water. She rubs her eyes and blinks against the light. A huge serpent, scales blue and gold, rises from the pond and she wonders if she has passed out.
The water dragon shrinks as it reaches the shore. Mai scrabbles backward, only her feet in the water now. The dragon morphs from a scaled beast with a bearded, wolfish head into a boy not much older than her sixteen years. His skin is blue and his eyes are gold. His hair is less like human hair than like vines, tendrils of water-grass colored like the jade beneath her body. When he smiles, his teeth are black.
Mai bites her knuckles and holds as still as she can. Her clothes are too far away. She doesn't think screaming will help. Screaming has never helped her.
The dragon-boy says something in a language she doesn't know. She shakes her head. Her hair has come out of its braid and flops around her shoulders. She pulls the thick black strands over her chest, ashamed of her brown nipples, cage-like ribs, and bony chest. Her hair doesn't quite reach her thighs and her girl place is bare, shaved every morning as Pembroke requires. She squeezes her thighs shut and gulps in a breath.
"I don't understand you," she says, because the dragon-boy has cocked his head to one side like the canary Pembroke bought her when she was nine and he moved her out of the pink room.
The dragon-boy says something else and crouches down, holding out his hand. Mai tries not to look between his legs as she gets slowly to her knees. She touches her fingers to his, telling herself that this isn't real.
His fingers are warm and smooth and slick. He smiles, black teeth against blue lips. His eyes are shaped like hers and he looks so different from Pembroke that her fear of him feels as insubstantial to her as wind.
"Rin," he says and touches his chest.
"Mai," she says, touching her own chest. She pulls away from him and looks up at the sun. "I have to go," she says. He smells like green tea and the thick red clay she spins on her pottery wheel. He's not real, she tells herself. She is sick from the heat or from not eating enough or from dehydration. Or her heart is sick. She has conjured him.
Mai stands and backs away. Rin does not follow her but he watches with his head tilted as she pulls on her T-shirt, then her pants and shoes. She runs away. She is good at running.
Mai barely gets back by tea time. Her shoes leave partial tracks on the tiles of the main room. Pembroke comes out of his office, wearing his usual white shorts and buttoned-down shirt with the tiny horse on the breast. His light brown hair is mussed as though he has spent all morning running his fingers through it.
"Where were you?" Pembroke asks.
"Running," she says. "I found a pond and went for a swim." She holds up her damp braid as evidence. Her tongue feels thick with the things she has not said.
"Go shower," Pembroke says. He is already staring beyond her, out to the south terrace where silent brown-skinned servants are setting out afternoon tea. "You don't know what might be in the water here."
Mai chokes back a nervous giggle and goes to obey him, relieved that he takes her at her word and doesn't press for more. As she washes the sweat from her skin, she wonders when she stopped thinking Pembroke's eyes were the perfect color of blue.
When Pembroke comes to her that night she touches his hair and closes her eyes as his pale hands smooth her skin over her bones. She calls him Love the way he likes but in her mind she pictures tiny purple flowers and a jade tunnel that she can run down and down forever.
Mai stays away from the pond for two days. On the third day she has grown tired of arguing with herself and sets out up the hill. She takes a more direct route, carrying a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing rice cakes, a juice box, and half a chocolate bar that she secreted away on her last birthday. She stands at the shore and calls out Rin's name, feeling like an idiot when the water stays clear and still.
It is only when she tosses a handful of green stones out into the depths that the water churns and spits up the blue dragon-boy again. This time he is not naked but wears yellow silk pants tied with a strand of black pearls.
He sits in the shade of the trees with her and tastes the food she has brought, making faces when he discovers it makes her laugh. Mai flinches when he reaches for her hand and his gold eyes look hurt, his greenish brows knitting together. He holds out a blue hand and tilts his head, asking the question with his face since she still can't understand any of his words.
Mai reaches out and sets her hand on his. He folds his fingers over her and pulls her hand to his mouth, licking her skin with a blue tongue. His tongue is warm like his skin and just rough enough to tickle. She smiles as a dizzy feeling uncurls in her belly and snakes up to her head.
Rin says more words she doesn't understand and motions to the salted rice cakes. She thinks she understands and nods. When he lets go of her hand she is sad. It is the first prolonged contact she has had with anyone since her mother handed her over to Pembroke ten years ago. It is the first touch she has chosen for herself.
Mai takes his hand back, watching his face to make sure he isn't angered by her forwardness. When he smiles, she pulls him closer and touches her lips to his chin. His skin there isn't slick like his hands but textured as though there are tiny scales growing there. He tastes the way the clear water smells, fresh and sharp and natural. Rin bends his head and when his lips touch hers, Mai doesn't pull away. She keeps her eyes open and in the golden depth of his eyes she sees an image of herself wrapped in green silk with her hair loose over her shoulders and draped in pink pearls.
She jerks back and searches his face, but the mirage is gone and his eyes are non-reflective swirling gold again, empty of herself. Mai wants to ask him so many questions, but they have no language in common.
Pembroke stands directing two men in coveralls outside the pink room. Mai cannot slip past them without him seeing so she doesn't try to sneak. It is well past tea time.
His grip on her arm will raise a bruise later but she keeps her eyes fixed on his white tennis shoes and her mouth pressed shut.
"Where were you?"
"Running," she says.
"With a lunch box?" Pembroke shakes her arm and Mai almost drops the box.
"I wanted fresh air. In the orchard." She thinks of the other day and takes a risk as fear sweat tickles her spine. "Ask the gardeners. I know at least one saw me up there, resting under the falling petals."
He lets go of her arm and sighs. The two men have stopped painting and watch until Pembroke glares at them. "Go shower," he mutters to her and she knows she has won. He will not check with the gardeners. She has never lied to him so directly before. She has never had anything of her own, anything to protect.
She takes care with her outfit, just in case he's still angry. Mai chooses the white dress with the tiny red cherries on it and a clean pair of white cotton panties. She uses the curling iron to give her pigtails bounce and puts baby powder on her armpits. When he comes to her room that night she is ready to use every method of keeping him happy that he has taught her.
But Pembroke sits on the bed and plucks at the lace hem of her dress, his eyes staring at the sea-green wall and the shadows her unicorn lamp casts there.
"I am going away for a few days," he says. His fingers brush her thigh but his hand doesn't wander higher.
"Okay, Love," she says. He has gone away before. There will be a dead-eyed woman who doesn't speak to her here in the morning, Mai thinks. That is how it has been before when he travels on whatever his business is. It seems to involve a lot of time in his wood-paneled office behind the huge hardwood desk, yelling into the telephone.
"I don't want you going outside for runs while I'm gone. If you got hurt out there, I'd be devastated. You know that, right? You'll run on the treadmill until I return."
Mai thinks of Rin and the gentle brush of his lips. "Okay," she says. "I don't want to worry you." She smiles, knowing he will mistake it as being for him instead of just at him.
"You are a good girl, Mai." Pembroke's hand lifts from her thigh and his thumb rubs over her lips. Mai feels as fragile as a vase, holding her secret in the hollow of her body. When he leaves without demanding the use of her body, she curls into a ball on the turquoise coverlet and presses her face into her pillow, her hand between her legs. She thinks about blue skin and lapping water.
The hard-eyed woman falls asleep in a rattan chair on the terrace and Mai runs in her sandals all the way to the pond. It is afternoon and Rin is already out of the water, stacking jade stones into towers as he waits for her.
When he leans in toward her, Mai takes his hand and kisses him. She wraps her other hand in his hair. It is spongy and wet and the green tea smell grows stronger when she squeezes the thin vines.
"I want to swim," she says, pointing at the water. She pulls away from him and strips off her dress, pushing away the embarrassment that rises. Mai hopes Rin will like her as she is because that is all she has. She is tired of trying to be something else.
He laughs and pulls her into the water, his silk pants dissolving as it passes their waists. Mai swims out and flips onto her back, floating. She tugs at her braids and pulls the bubble-gum colored plastic ties out so that her hair fans out around her. Rin dives beneath and comes up. His legs fuse and his body beneath the water seems to go on forever, glinting blue and gold down into the depths. He folds his arms on the surface of the water as Mai might on a table and rests his chin on his hands, watching her.
After a while she gets too cold and swims to the shore. The jade stones are smooth and warm from the sun. Rin sits beside her.
Mai points at the water and says, "Water." She looks at him, trying to convey what she wants.
His head tips and then Rin smiles and tells her a word. She repeats the word, tucking it away in her memory. She points to a tree and asks again. When they have exhausted all the simple things around her that she can find, she touches her hair.
Rin closes his hand over her own and combs their clasped fingers through her hair. He doesn't give her one word but many, a soft stream of language that flows around her. His words wake her memory and she responds with a phrase.
His hand turns to a fist in her hair and his lips press together. He says something else, his tone soft and the words turn up at the end as though he has asked a question.
"I don't know what I said," Mai says. "I just remember..." She trails off and looks down at her thighs. She remembers her mother, or at least a woman she thinks was her mother. The words she spoke to Rin were the ones her mother said over and over as people who are no more than blurs of color in Mai's memories talked to the tall white man she would be taught to call Love. Mai knows that she must have understood those words once but none of them have meaning now and none of them are the names of trees, water, rock, purple flowers.
Rin tips her chin up and snaps his fingers. He opens his hand and reveals a bright blue scale nearly the size of his palm. Gently he pushes her onto her back and lifts her hair off her body. Mai's heart jumps and she feels the familiar panic in her gut but shoves it away. This is Rin. He is hers.
He starts on her chest; the scale tracing symbols that she guesses are letters. The scale is softer than it looks; brushing over her skin like a petal and leaving blue lines behind like a piece of chalk. She doesn't know what the words mean at first but he writes the same lines over and over. Heat builds between her legs and Mai presses her thighs together, blushing. When all the skin on her front has writing, Rin slides his fingers beneath her bony hip and turns her over. Mai lifts her arms and lets him pull her hair off her back. Her muscles clench and she breathes through her nose. This position has too many memories tied to it and she feels exposed, vulnerable.
Rin's fingers stroke down her back and he starts to hum. Mai relaxes, resting her head on her crossed arms. She catches his smile out of the corner of her eye and then he resumes writing on her body. The soft brush of the scale lulls her and the warm sunlight softens the air until she is drowsy.
In her half-sleep, Mai hears the words again. Rin writes the symbols a final time down the sole of her right foot and then turns her over. His blue body comes over hers but though she can feel the thick warmth of his erection and lets her thighs relax, he doesn't try to penetrate her. His lips touch hers and she breathes in the air he breathes out. His fingertips brush her eyes and she closes them.
When he speaks, she understands the words.
The sun is a red disk hanging over the gardens when Mai returns to the villa. Her head hurts with possibilities. She slips into the house and ignores the glare of the woman hired to mind her.
Mai stands in the shower a long time without turning on the water, her fingers stroking the words on her skin. She brings her hand to her mouth and tastes her own salt and baby powder scent.
When she turns on the water, the tears come, her thin shoulders shaking. Rin whispered many promises, each like a gem dropping from his lips into her throat until she felt full and heavy. She would be his queen. She would live in his palace and never want for anything or be made to do anything she did not agree to. She had asked him why, rolling the words around on her tongue and clicking them against her teeth.
"I am lonely, too."
The tap water is wrong, metallic. Mai shuts it off, watching the last of the glittering blue writing swirl down the drain. On her way to her room she stops and stares at the pink room. The furniture is the same but the walls have been freshly repainted and are bright when she flips on the light. The white bedspread is neatly made on the child's bed with its heart-shaped headboard. Nightlights in the shape of fairies decorate every outlet, their stained-glass wings dark.
She goes to bed without eating and lies on her back, watching the patterns cast by her lamp. She runs her hands over her skin and wonders what it would mean to be whole.
The woman does not let Mai out of her sight the next day and Mai is glad for the excuse to sit in the shade and kick her pottery wheel until the red clay wobbles and droplets fly out into the sunlight. Some hit her bare legs below the hem of the green summer dress and run down her legs looking like old blood. Her mind is not on the pots but on the blue scale tucked into her jewelry box.
She washes the clay off before tea is served and pulls Rin's scale out. It is almost too warm against her skin and when she tips it up she sees Rin in his dragon form, curled beneath the water, and hears his voice like a wave in her mind repeating a phrase over and over in a language she can almost understand.
The front door opens and Mai starts as she hears Pembroke calling her name. She closes her hand around the scale and leaves her room.
In the living room, Pembroke stands with a purple duffle bag under one arm. A young girl of maybe six or seven years stands beside him. She wears a frilly dress so new that Mai can smell the store's incense on it and her black hair is straight and streaked with dust. Her almond eyes are wide as she looks around, trying to take in the large villa and all the details at once. It is a look Mai remembers, from the inside.
"This is Hana and she is going to stay with us for a while," Pembroke says. He sets down the bag and pushes the little girl forward with a hand on her back. "Show her the pink room and then we will have tea, all right?" His eyes are on Hana even though he speaks to Mai.
"I am Mai," she says, trying to smile. Her heart beats faster and faster and she hears water rushing in her ears. She takes Hana's hand. It is tiny and warm. There is dirt under the girl's nails.
Pembroke nods and goes toward his office. Mai bends and picks Hana up, resting her on her hip. The girl weighs very little. If she stays here, Mai thinks, she will learn to weigh nothing at all. She looks down the hall to the pink room as she walks but doesn't turn that way. The little girl says something to Mai, babbling a quick stream of words that mean nothing and one of her little hands tugs on Mai's braid.
Mai smiles at her and opens her other hand. Hana blinks down at the blue scale and reaches for it, hesitating at the last moment and looking up with wide dark eyes. Her chin wrinkles and quivers and her nose has started to run. Mai looks out through the open terrace doors toward the cherry orchard. She sees the years going by and all the tears that Hana will shed.
She closes her hand over the scale again and clutches the girl with both arms. Then she is out the door, running barefoot from the terrace and into the orchard. Petals fall around them and Hana struggles, half-screaming something.
Mai opens her mouth and words erupt from her, tiny seed pearls spilling over her lips and dropping down into the space between their bodies.
"Trust me, I love you, everything will be all right," she says in the language she has started to remember. Her words are a mix of those her mother spoke and those which Rin has given back to her.
Hana quiets and buries her head against Mai's chest. Though her legs and lungs burn, Mai doesn't stop until she reaches the pond. She stands on the jade shore and calls out Rin's name as she tosses the scale into the pond. Then she plunges into the water until it closes over both their heads.
Blue and gold scales coil around them and pull them down, down, away from the daylight and into the deep.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Author Comments

I wrote this story for Week 6 of the Clarion Workshop (UCSD) after listening to Kij Johnson do a reading. I had intended to turn in a different story for the week, but then this story stepped into my head and wouldn't let go. I wanted to write about choices and how sometimes just having the power to make any choice at all is rare and precious.

- Annie Bellet
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