The White Fish by Felix Taylor

She was Unn. She had silver in her hair and wore thin shoes made from felt. I am Unn, she thought. What am I doing here? For the first time in a long time, she could feel a pulse behind the ridge of her nose and when she blinked a single tear fell onto her clasped hands. It ran down her wrist and out of sight; the trail evaporated in the heat.

Never cry, she thought. Don’t you cry or they’ll know you are not what you say you are. She sniffed and took a long breath as if to draw what she felt back into herself. If anyone were to come by. She was Unn the Healer. Unn of the Hot Touch. The Bold, the Blessed. Unn with the Half Smile, someone had once named her, Unn Who Walks Between Worlds. That is how she rendered it in her own speech. The people from this part of the Glade knew her; some were afraid, but most trusted her.

 Not after this morning, she thought.

Unn inhaled again and watched the sky. She was sitting in hinterland, a dusty clearing at the edge of a mile of brambles. Yellow gorse whose odor wafted on the warm air and tiny pink ruoy that winked like precious stones. Unn remembered eating them by the handful as a child, soft and sour. She felt saliva loosen in her mouth.

Unn had used gorse earlier that morning: dried petals crushed into a paste for the sick. It had worked before and she knew it always would work. For closing wounds and pushing out poison. But there had been something very wrong with that boy. The color of his skin, dark as wet wood smoke. Specks of something like the patterns of mold on a rotting tree. He was dead, but for the coughing, the crying out for the mother who had died of the same disease the year before; Rundell was stricken with it, and now it was here in Lef. But the cases were much worse. They were saying it had come from the sea, picked up in a crayfish haul, eaten, digested. There was to be no spitting in the streets anymore.

“You stay away,” the father had said. “Keir. Deira. Witch. Killer.”

They did not know the Red tongue well in Lef, but they knew it better than Unn spoke Fallian. Red in the north, three other tongues in the south.

He had jostled Unn out of the house and her arms had knocked against the stone. Her bag had spilled.

Keir.”

Witch. Curse-giver. Soul-snatcher. It had not been the names that had caused her to shrink back, to bite her lip and slink away from the stares of the townsfolk. It was that she had not been allowed to stay by the boy’s side: he had needed calming and reassurance. Kind words and a watchful eye. The father had been afraid of his son; that much had been clear. He had hung back by the fire as Unn had examined the grey skin, pressed her fingers to the spreading black stain under the boy’s ribcage. The boy had writhed and cried out.

“How much?” the man had growled.

“It is difficult to know,” Unn had turned. “I’ve not seen it like this.”

But she had realized from his expression that he had not been asking about his son’s condition. He had been asking the fee. How much money to cure him? How much to keep him alive? He was a smith: his workshop lay in shadow beyond the hangings.

She had shaken her head and gone back to prodding. The boy’s wild eyes were fixed ahead of him, his limbs tensed as though he had been trying to hold himself in the world. To relax a single muscle would mean losing himself, drying up like a riverbed leaving only mud and rock and fish drowning in the air. The emaciation had left him weak.

“Come on now,” she had said.

She had thought the gorse salve would allow him to rest, but his screams had filled the room, battering her ears, causing the fire to shoot back against the brick. Scratching at the yellow pulp, digging into his own arm as though to prise out the infection from under his skin, the boy had become mad with the pain. Unn had seen rabid mutts biting at their own fur, but this had been much worse.

“Out!” the smith had flung her bodily from the sickbed. “Keir. Keir!

It was all still there like a sodden rag, soaking her thoughts with what she could have done, what she might have said. More time: I needed more time with the boy. Now she was a mile away and alone, the murmur of waves somewhere to the south.

Unn had endured little moments like this before, but she had never cried.

It was an hour past midday and there was no protection from the sun that hummed and beat upon her neck. The rim of shadow from the high brambles had narrowed to a strip. There was salt on the hot wind, and somewhere, now that she had fallen to listening, she could make out the sound of running water: a delicate, musical trickle that rose above the rush of the distant sea.

If I could have a drink, thought Unn. Wash my arms and face. Then I can move on, leave Lef behind. The next village on the coastal path would have work for her, she could feel it. If not there, then the next.

She stood, shouldering her bag. She slung her blanket roll onto her back and rubbed an eye with her knuckle. Better to forget.

Across the clearing, through the gorse and ruoy, she found sweet-smelling slip flowers. A bank of blue say-fairs like open mouths. Beyond these, a ribbon of clear water fell over a stone ridge and formed a pool as wide as the great conical mirror that Unn’s teacher had once kept in his study. He had used it for locating the centers of illnesses, the points in the body, he said, where a sickness held the strongest grip.

Unn lowered her bag and roll and went to the pool. She felt the cold rising from its surface, saw the sun reflected at its edges. The water was clear, and Unn could see through the sky. A white fish circled the bottom; it was full grown and whiskers grew from its cheeks.

A trout, Unn wondered, or a catfish? Gloriously white. It’s as white as the moon down there.

The fish darted to the surface and, opening its little flap of a mouth, caught a morsel of something before diving back down with a kick of the tail. It was calming, watching it wriggle as it made loops. Unn imagined that it was dancing just for her, delighted to have an audience for once.

Unn cupped her hands and laid them on the surface, letting the water seep through the gaps between her fingers. As she brought her hands up to take a drink, the fish leaped with them: it was as though she had drawn it out with this single gesture. The fish flashed in the air, the sunlight hitting its body and making it gleam. And then it was a girl. She landed in the grass by the pool and looked up at Unn.

Unn looked back, the water dripping down her arms.

“You are not a catfish,” said Unn.

The girl shook her head. She was a miniature girl, like a figurine you might see in a shop window. Her head came to the level of Unn’s knees. The red dress she wore was dry and well kept: it puffed at the shoulders and a wide belt was fitted around her waist. Her hair was brown and plainly cut.

“But you…” Unn stopped. What should she say? She wiped her hands on her clothes. “You come from the pool,” she said.

Unn laughed. “You cannot be a Norn.”

The girl pursed her lips, sucking them almost out of sight, and offered a stiff curtsy.

Unn laughed again, but not at the girl. She was remembering stories by the fireside from when she herself had been a girl, before she had ever been sent to apprentice. Norns know the future, her father would say. They see it in water and fire, he would gesture to the embers. And the wind. Everything that will ever happen is written into the world and the Norns have learned to read it. Mothers used to take day-old babes to Norns to find their futures, did you know? Unn had known; he would tell these stories over and over. She would shake her head anyway and listen.

“Did mimi take me to see a Norn?” she would ask.

“I will say this,” her father would raise a finger and the dying fire would spit. “That the night after you were born, she carried you out into the dark and returned at first sun. She never said where she had taken you.”

Unn watched as the miniature girl looked about her, taking in the briars and the gorse. She inhaled through her nose and closed her eyes. Then she walked to where the yellow flowers hung near the ground. She moves almost like a fish! Unn thought. Or how a fish would move if it had two legs, swerving its knees and shoulders as if to a song. She was not used to being a girl out of water.

“That’s gorse,” said Unn. The Norn reached up and ran a hand through the flowers. She squeezed the petals and wrapped the stems around her fingers so that they fell apart. She extended an arm into the bush and shook the insides and all the spines quivered. When she took them out her pale skin was bloody and wet.

“Oh, no,” Unn got up and went over to the Norn, who held her hands out, unsure what to do with them. Did it hurt her? Did she know about pain? “No, no,” said Unn, “those bushes will do that. Stand still.”

The Norn stayed where she was while Unn took out a roll of bandage cloth from her bag. First she washed the cuts using a bowl of water from the pool. Then she rubbed them with an oil the color of molasses, odorless and slick. Finally, having wrapped the thin cloth tightly over the Norn’s wrists, Unn sat back on her heels.

“So you know the way the world will go,” she said, “but not that brambles will scratch?”

The girl looked dazed, her face set, as though she really were just made of porcelain.

“You have a name?” Unn asked.

Her expression did not change, except for her mouth, which opened to make a round ‘O.’ Just like the fish, thought Unn. The tip of a tongue emerged and licked both lips.

“Are you going to speak?” asked Unn, pointing to the girl’s mouth. The girl seemed to understand because she shook her head. Well, she had known she wasn’t a catfish. Which meant that she knew part of the Red tongue. Perhaps she knew all speech, had every word that would ever be spoken drifting about in that small head of hers. Akreb and Older Faddish. The words of stones and moss.

The tongue vanished and the Norn closed her mouth.

“You’re not going to go back to being a fish,” said Unn.

The Norn showed her teeth and said something which sounded like siki.

Siki? thought Unn. What could that mean? Seeking?

The Norn’s eyes flicked to the pool and the thin trickle of water still falling from the ridge. A longing for the cold rocks? But then her gaze shifted to the sky and she craned her neck, taking in the tiny wisps of cloud which withstood the sun. The world was too new, too tempting. How long had she been in that pool? And why, Unn began to wonder, had she come out?

As if in answer to Unn’s question, the Norn brushed one of her bandaged hands against Unn’s knee. She gestured to the pool. Unn followed as the girl made her way back to the cold water. She knelt at the edge and peered straight in.

“That’s where you were,” said Unn, reaching the Norn’s side.

Unn stopped trying to see the bottom when she realized that the Norn was making faces: the kissing ‘O’ and the bulging cheeks. She was smiling, then she was giggling, her eyes shocked at what she could not control. It was the strangest sound Unn had ever heard, not quite laughter and not quite song. It bubbled up from the Norn’s throat as though it were a spring that had finally found its way out of the ground. Unn grinned like a child and the events of the morning were forgotten.

They sat there for a while, watching themselves in the sky. The sun whitened, receding into its own light, and a slight wind carried off some of its heat. The brambles swayed and jostled each other. The Norn touched the water with a finger and the reflection changed.

Shadow and light played on the surface; figures glinted like metal and moved in slow, inevitable motion. The coils of snakes brushing the grass. The moon, spinning and growing larger until it filled the pool. An old woman climbing a hill. When she reached the summit she sat down by the cairn and became part of the stone.

Are these images of my future? Unn wondered. How can they be?

She saw the face of a boy, the same boy who lay in his sickbed at Lef, only he was straining against something. He was pulling himself out of a mud-like substance, one foot after another. Hands were helping him; they reached for his limbs and raised him up. And then the boy was smiling. He was so close that he might have been kneeling beside Unn and the Norn, casting his own reflection in the pool. Tears of laughter shone in his eyes like beads of silver. He was alive; he was happy and Unn knew without even thinking that she had done this, she had made him this way. He was growing taller, and, like the moon, he outgrew the bounds of the pool. Little children sprang up from the ground and began to dance. Everything dissolved into the shape of a great fish which swam around in circles.

I need to go back,” Unn got to her feet. She was scrambling for her bag, feeling the pockets. “To the village. I cannot leave the boy alone.”

What she had seen in the pool had felt real: the boy, healthy and whole, almost unrecognizable from the withered gray child she had treated that morning. If it is destiny, she thought, then let it be so. If I can help and if he has any chance, then I must be there for him.

Unn straightened up, possessions slung over her shoulder. She considered the Norn.

“You’re coming with me,” she said. “I believe that’s why you’re here.”

And why you are no longer a fish, she added, but did not speak it.

The Norn said nothing; instead, she dusted down her red dress and showed her teeth again as if to signal that she was ready.

“You had better let me carry you,” Unn said, lowering her bag. “Unless you can change into an animal that can keep up with me.”

The Norn managed to sit amongst the cloth and bottles. She hooked one hand over Unn’s arm and with the other she clasped the bag’s handle. Testing its weight, Unn found the bag no heavier than before.

Through briar and brambles Unn strode the mile back along the cliffs to Lef. When dust gave way to earth, she glimpsed little shells imprinted underfoot. The sea opened out on her right, a pulsing blue which met the sky and filled all the world. Unn imagined that she could see a gap between water and wind, a space where nothing could exist, where a person might rest undisturbed.

But there’s no time to rest now, she thought. Whenever she slowed to catch her breath, she felt the possibility fading, the image of the boy’s face becoming dull in her mind.

The sounds of birds grew louder as the village came into view: guillemots squeaking like old wheels and shearwaters rustling as they fought for nest space. The Norn shifted and fidgeted in the bag, and once when a gull flew overhead she burrowed further down. The lighthouse at Lef rose in the distance. Unn had passed it coming from the other side, but from this end it looked as though the village had grown a tooth, an outcrop of bone which kept the houses anchored to the cliff.

The dirt track became cobbles. He’s still alive, she thought. Paving slabs the color of red meat: it was carved from the beaches at Wellmot, she knew, where the sand stains the sea pink. As long as he’s breathing, I can do what I can.

They came to the house. She saw the smith sitting by the entrance, staring dazedly at his feet. His lank hair almost covered his eyes. Evidently he had given up hope, preferred to be outside as his boy changed into something else.

Keir,” he said quietly as Unn approached, his eyes flicking up to meet hers.

She looked away and walked through the open door. It was still clammy inside, still humid and bitter; the fire spat low from the shadows. She saw the boy: he coughed and his head lolled to the side.

“You kill him,” a voice came from behind her. The smith stood at the door.

“Stay there!” Unn raised an arm. “You’ve done enough.”

Deira.”

“Let me make him well,” she said. She felt the Norn stir in the bag.

The smith stepped away when the Norn poked her head out. He leaned against the back wall; something about his posture made Unn conclude that he would stay there. She moved to the boy. His sightless eyes strained to make out the newcomer; tort, cankered skin showed the muscles working beneath his face.

Almost gone, she thought.

“Here you are,” said Unn, lowering her bag to the wicker chair. The Norn clambered out, one delicate foot after the other, as Unn began to rummage in her deep pockets.

“What is his name?” she turned and called to the smith.

He scowled, but something that sounded like dammi escaped his lips
    “First suck on this, Dammi,” she said to the boy, and pushed between his teeth a smooth stone just flatter than an egg. “Keep it there. I found that in the Blue Woods. It will stop you going under.”

Unn did not know if the sickness had reached Dammi’s ears, but he held the strange gift on his swollen tongue without complaint, as if he had understood.

“Now what else?” she said to herself. “No gorse, not this time. Adamanthus? That’s more for chills and for ague. String weed, cowslip, coalbark. No, no.”

None of this would do, she thought, studying the drying welt that spread from Dammi’s chest to fester in the crooks of his shoulder blades. What good are my tinctures here?

One Who Walks Between Worlds, that was Unn. But she had not attempted that movement in twenty years.

While Unn wondered what to do next, the Norn climbed from the chair and onto the bed. She felt the boy with her bandaged hands, ran her fingers along the shin bone which stuck out in a hard ridge from under the blanket. Then she sat by him in the hollow made by his curved stomach, and she began to sing. Her mouth opened, her tongue moved. It was as if the trickling stream were in the room with them, and over that were even sweeter notes which flew and refused to fade. Unn had never heard anything like it: not her father’s flute, not the voice of the woman who had sung for a thousand people at the Midwinter festival.

The Norn was singing Dammi to sleep as calmly and as curiously as a mechanical music box Unn had seen being sold at fares. There was something more to the song that was pushing Unn, however, making space for her. It was the white fish in the water which swam in circles, growing larger, expanding its territory. Unn could see a way into Dammi as he slipped nearer to another world. She could put her foot in, test the temperature; she could find a way to slip in beside him. She leaned into the Norn’s song and let it wash over her. She reached into the world with a long arm and raked away things she could only half-see: blockages, wet leaves which had rotted and now stank. She drained the sickness like bad blood and watched it stream away.

She glimpsed a green land which beckoned to her in soft silence; the wind in the long grass called her to stay, but the Norn’s song held onto her.

And then she was back in the fire-lit room, glad of the heat and the smell of straw and burning logs. She felt the hands of exhaustion pawing at her neck; she felt scared, but only for a moment. She removed the stone from Dammi’s mouth and as if a bank of cloud had drifted away from the sun, the boy’s eyes brightened. They found the source of the song and he smiled; he was able to prop himself up on his elbows, though the black stain under his ribs made him wince. The Norn fell silent and sat, pleased with herself. She watched the boy, and he watched her.

“I did not know I could still do that,” said Unn. “But I expect you did.” She nudged the leg of the Norn’s chair.

“Siki,” said the girl, jerking her head to the side.

Unn smiled. She heated water and bathed Dammi. His father, who until then had not moved from his position by the entrance, joined the three of them and they took food together, a broth of white mushrooms seasoned with herbs from the larder. The Norn ate nuts from a clay dish and sat swinging her legs, eyes always coming to rest on Dammi as Unn fed him from a ladle.

She knows something about him, Unn guessed.

And when it was time to leave, the Norn led Dammi to the fire where they knelt as if praying. Unn and the smith looked away until the pair returned, the small girl and the thin gray boy, hand in hand. Dammi seemed to be deep in thought, but then he laughed and put his arms around Unn’s middle. When he broke away he was nodding and smiling and his cracked lips had grown pink. The smith placed both his heavy hands on Unn’s shoulders and bowed his head, murmuring words of thanks in Fallian she could not understand. He gave her a cloth made from animal skin and a pendant he had crafted in his workshop; he came with them to the end of the street.

“If I could show a person their future,” Unn said, turning from the smith as he waved them off, “I would be very careful. I would not show children.”

The Norn blinked from the top of the bag.

“What did you put in the fire for him?”

The Norn didn’t answer; Unn hadn’t expected her to. She was glad to have picked her up, out in the wild beyond Lef, but the notion had just struck her that traveling with a Norn might not be as easy as she had first thought.

They turned out of the village and passed the lighthouse, the Norn gripping Unn’s arm as she gazed out at the sea. A chalk path ran alongside the edge of the cliff, winding slowly downward to where it eventually joined with Rundell. The sun would not set for several hours and Unn was tired, but the wind from the south would keep her awake. The Norn, however, could close her eyes. No doubt she knew what lay ahead and the fact that she felt safe enough to sleep was at least a comfort to Unn. There was work to be done in Rundell, Unn knew. She would need the song of the white fish.


Felix Taylor is a fledgling fantasy writer, living and working in Oxford, UK.