Telling Tales 93
Damp Conversations with Big Girls
In the distance, Ivan could hear Vasilisa telling Natalya to be quiet and that there was no one following them and how could there be, all she had to do was look behind them. The friendly fish, meanwhile, kept up her patter although she did lower her voice without Ivan having to ask her. “My uncle,” she whispered, “my uncle used to pick fights with sharks. Always thought he was bigger than he was. It didn’t end well, as you can imagine. Oh, he’s fine, he didn’t get eaten, but he’s shy a couple of fins these days and mostly just swims in circles telling everyone war stories. My aunt says he’s full of eggs and that he lost his fins in a net and he would’ve dived at the first sign of a shark, but he tells a good tale, so nobody tries to make him stop.”
“Is that a light up there?” asked Ivan, who had decided that the best way of dealing with the fish was to “yes” and “uh huh” from time to time. “Beyond the princesses. It almost looks like… dawn.”
“Oh, yes, didn’t I tell you? Once you get far enough along, you’ll reach the Sunset Kingdom. I’m sure I mentioned it – remember? It was when I was explaining about my mother’s mother’s cousin’s cousin, whose been cursed to wrap himself around a magician’s – ”
“How long have we been traveling?” asked Ivan.
“I don’t know about you before we met on the shore, but I’ve been swimming long enough for my brother’s children to have been laid and hatched and – ”
“Do the princesses come down here every night?” asked Ivan.
“Oh, yes. Why, I can remember the first night they arrived, all twelve of them in their white, white dresses, and then they stopped coming for a great deal of time – ”
“That was probably when Vasilisa had been kidnapped and I was trying to bring her back,” Ivan mused. He started up again before the fish could. “But how can that be? I climbed down the steps for two or three hours, and now we’ve been swimming, well, you have, for what seems like hours more, and even if we turned around right now we wouldn’t make it back to the castle by dawn.”
He drew a breath and the fish began speaking into his pause. “Time passes differently down here. Look, they’ve arrived at the dock! Now they’ll disembark, one, two, three, four, and so on, and they’re off to the ball at the Sunset Castle.”
“In their nightgowns?”
“They’re not wearing nightgowns,” said the fish. As she swam closer, between the lanterns and the glowing light, he could see that they were dressed in fancy ball gowns.” He could also see that the fish he sat astride was a giant, pale eel with giant milky eyes. He was terribly glad he had met her at first in the dark.
“Can you tell me about the kingdom or the ball? They’re fairies, aren’t they?”
“Fairies do play with time,” the eel agreed. “I’ll leave you here, and safe travels.”
From the safety of the dock, Ivan examined her full size. “If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”
“Just a baby,” she giggled through a mouthful of teeth. “Someday when I’m big I’m going to have a date with a thunder god.”
“Do you have any advice for me?” asked Ivan, feeling that he’d heard too much.
The eel giggled again. “Don’t drink the water!” Then she vanished into the dark depths with only the slightest splash.