One of the perks of academia—the part that was supposed to make up for the low salary, living in a hick town a hundred miles from a good shoe store and a decent hair salon, putting up with demanding, entitled eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds, and navigating departmental politics—was getting summers off. I had always imagined that once I was established in a tenure track job I would spend my summers abroad. Sure, I’d pin the trip on some worthy research goal—reading the juvenilia of Charlotte Brontë at the British Library or researching the court fairy tales of Marie d’Aulnoy at the Bibliothèque Nationale—but there was no law that when those venerable institutions closed at dusk I couldn’t spend my evenings catching a show on the West End or listening to jazz in a Left Bank café.
What I had not pictured myself doing during my summer break was swatting through the humid, mosquito-infested woods of upstate New York in knee-high rubber boots.
I had known I was in trouble when I opened my door that morning to find Elizabeth Book, Dean of Fairwick College and my boss; Diana Hart, owner of the Hart Brake Inn; and Soheila Lilly, Middle Eastern studies professor, on my front porch. The first time these three women had shown up on my doorstep together had been last year, the night before Thanksgiving, when they’d come to banish an incorporeal incubus from my house.
Only then they hadn’t been tricked out in knee-high rubber boots and fishing tackle. Fairwick was big on fishing. The town had been plastered with fishermen welcome! signs since Memorial Day. There was a “Small Fry Fry-Up” at the Village Diner, an “Angler’s Weekend” at the Motel 6 on the highway, and a “Romantic Rainbow Trout Dinner for Two” at DiNapoli’s. Out-of-town RVs with airbrushed vistas of rushing streams and leaping trout had been clogging Main Street for the last few weeks. Our part of the Catskills was apparently the fly-fishing capital of the Northeast. Still, fishing seemed like a mundane activity for these three women. The dean, as I’d learned this past year, was a witch; Diana was an ancient deer-fairy; and Soheila was a succubus. A reformed, nonpracticing succubus. But still. A succubus.
“What’s up?” I asked guardedly. “Is this an intervention for my plumbing? It has been making some strange sounds.”
I was only half joking. One of the reasons I had opted to stay home this summer was to get some work done on Honeysuckle House, the lovely—but time consuming—Victorian I’d bought the fall before. Since I’d been forced to banish my boyfriend four months ago I’d thrown myself into an orgy of home repair. I’d been breathing dust and paint fumes for weeks. Today I’d been waiting for the arrival of Brock, my handyman (who also happened to be an ancient Norse divinity), to fix some broken roof tiles, when the doorbell rang.
“No, dear,” Diana said, her freckled face breaking into an awkward smile. When the three of them had come to banish the incubus from my house I’d joked that they were there for an intervention, but when four months later Diana and Soheila had come to break it to me that my lover, Liam Doyle, was that same incubus and that he was draining not just me but a dozen students of our life force, the joke hadn’t seemed so funny. I think they all felt a little guilty when we found out Liam was innocent of attacking the students. But he’d been an incubus and you couldn’t go on living with an incubus. Could you?
“I’m afraid we have a problem that only you can help us with,” Liz said.
“You need me to open the door?” I had learned in the past year that I was descended on my father’s side from a long line of “doorkeepers”—a type of fairy that could open the door between the two worlds. By a lucky—or perhaps unlucky, depending on how you looked at it—coincidence, the last door to Faerie was here in Fairwick, New York. So far my unusual talent had brought me nothing but grief and trouble.
“Yes!” they all three said together.
“What do you want me to let in?” I asked suspiciously. The last creature I’d let in from Faerie had tried to eat me.
“Nothing!” Diana insisted, her freckles standing out on her pale skin the way they did when she wasn’t telling the whole truth. “We want you to let something out. A lot of somethings, actually . . .”
Liz sighed, squeezed Diana’s hand, and finished for her. “Undines,” she said. “About two dozen of them. Unless you can help us get them back to Faerie they’re all going to die.”
“It’s their spawning season,” Soheila explained as we tramped through the woods that started at the edge of my backyard. “It only happens once every hundred years. The undine eggs . . .”
“Eggs? Undines come from eggs?” I asked, appalled. The only undine I knew about was the water nymph in the German fairy tale who marries a human husband and then, when he is unfaithful to her, curses him to cease breathing the moment he falls asleep.
“Of course, dear,” Diana answered, looking back over her shoulder. The path obliged us to walk in twos and Diana and Liz were up in front. “They have tails at this stage so you couldn’t very well expect them to give birth . . .”
“Okay, okay,” I interrupted. Although I’d written a book called The Sex Lives of Demon Lovers I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to know about the sex lives of fish-tailed undines. Thankfully, Diana took the hint and left out the more graphic details of the undines’ sex life, concentrating instead on the life cycle of their young.
“The eggs are laid in a pool at the headwaters of the Undine . . .”
“Is that why the stream is called the Undine?” I asked. I’d heard of the stream. The lower branch, south of the village, was popular with fishermen, but the upper branch, which had its headwaters somewhere in these woods, had been declared off limits by the Department of Ecological Conservation.
Liz Book sighed. “The locals started calling it that because of a legend about a young woman who lured fishermen into the depths of the trout pools and then drowned them.”
“They probably just fell in after a few too many drinks,” Soheila said. “It’s true that undines seduce human men—if they get one to marry them, they get a soul—but they don’t kill them unless they’re betrayed.” Soheila pushed back a vine and let it snap behind her, nearly hitting me in the face. Since she was normally the most charming and sophisticated of women, I had the feeling that the subject was sensitive for her. I’d learned this past year that Soheila had become part human when a mortal man fell in love with her, but he had died because her succubus nature had drained the life from him. Since then she’d scrupulously avoided any physical contact with mortal men, even though I suspected she had a crush on our American Studies professor, Frank Delmarco. A suspicion confirmed by how melancholy she’d been since Frank had gone away a few weeks ago to a conference called “The Discourses of Witchcraft” in Salem, Massachusetts.
“Anyway,” Diana continued in the strained, cheerful voice of a grade school teacher trying to keep her class on subject, “the eggs hatch into fingerlings that stay in the headwaters until they’re mature—we think it takes close to a hundred years—then, when they’ve matured into smolts, they begin the downstream journey to the sea.”
“The sea?” I asked. “But we’re hundreds of miles from the sea.”
“Not the Atlantic,” Liz said. “The Faerie Sea. The upper branch of the Undine flows through an underground passage into Faerie before it joins the lower branch.”
“I thought the door in the honeysuckle thicket was the only way into Faerie. You told me it was the last door.”
“It is the last door,” Liz said, “but there’s also an underwater passage to Faerie in these woods . . . or at least there used to be. It’s been growing narrower over the years, just as all the other passages to Faerie did until they closed. This passage was only big enough for a juvenile undine to slip through the last time they migrated a hundred years ago. We’re afraid that it’s clogged now, and when a passage to Faerie clogs it’s like when an artery to the heart closes—smaller veins open up around it. Unfortunately many of these smaller veins lead to the Borderlands instead of Faerie. If they don’t get through to Faerie they’ll die, but if they get stuck in the Borderlands . . .”
Her voice trailed off and I shivered, recalling my dream from last night. To be caught in the Borderlands meant death or an eternity of suffering.
“So,” Liz continued, “we thought with your doorkeeper powers you might be able to open the passage wide enough for them to go straight through to Faerie without getting lost in the Borderlands.”
“But I have no idea how to open an underwater passage,” I said. This was true, but I was also thinking of the dream. It had started seductively enough but had ended with my demon lover trying to drown me. He had been angry with me for trapping him in a watery hell. If that were true, I didn’t much like the idea of taking a dip into any body of water that might be connected to the Borderlands.
“Would I have to get in the water?” I asked.
“We don’t think so, dear . . . Wait . . . Do you hear that?”
Liz tilted her head and held up a manicured finger. At first all I heard was the buzzing of mosquitoes and flies in the heavy humid air. Even the birds were too tired to sing in the midday heat. I wiped a trickle of sweat away from my eyes and was about to tell Liz I didn’t hear anything when I became aware of a soft burbling beneath the drone of insects. A breeze stirred the heavy underbrush, bringing with it the delicious chill of running water.
“We’re at the headwaters,” Soheila said, sniffing the air and lifting her heavy dark hair off the nape of her neck. “The water bubbles up from a deep natural spring—the coldest, clearest water you’ve ever seen. Not many ever get to see it because it’s carefully hidden.”
Although I was still disturbed by the idea of going anywhere near a watery passage to Faerie, the sound of the stream was making my parched mouth water and my sweaty feet ache for a cold dip. If I could help the undines without getting into the water I wanted to do it. After all, they were harmless juveniles.
Only when I’d agreed to follow the three women farther into the woods did I remember just how volatile teenagers could be.
We scrambled through tangles of shrub, following the sound of water deeper into the thicket. Pushing the vines aside, we dislodged the bones of small animals and birds. I’d seen remnants like these around the door to Faerie, the remains of creatures who had gotten stuck in the Borderlands and died there. I felt the pressure of the vines on my skin as we passed and heard the creak of fiber and pulp as the thicket contracted around us—like one of those Chinese finger puzzles.
“Are you sure we can make it through this?” I asked, struggling to keep my mounting sense of claustrophobia at bay. It felt like we were in a wicker basket that was shrinking around us.
“Don’t worry.” Soheila said matter-of-factly. “Liz knows a spell to keep the thicket from closing in on us.”
That’s when I noticed Liz and Diana were silently mouthing words as they walked through the woods and that the vines were curling away from us as we approached. I felt reassured until I looked back and saw that the vines were also intertwining behind us. Just when I thought I couldn’t stand the claustrophobic woods another second we emerged into open air: a glade encircled by ferns. I felt and smelled the coolness of water before I saw the pool, which was the same deep green as the surrounding woods. When my eyes adjusted to the murk, I realized that the burble that had drawn us came from a spring bubbling up from a cleft in a giant boulder and falling into a wide basin hollowed out of gray-green granite. The women formed a circle around the basin and then crouched down beside it to scoop handfuls of water to their mouths. In this age of bottled water and rampant pollution it went against most of my instincts to drink from a hole in the ground, but thirst overcame my reservations. I knelt beside Soheila, cupped my hands beneath the ice-cold trickle, and brought a handful to my lips . . .
A mineral chill filled my mouth, my throat, my belly . . . then spread outward, plumping every desiccated cell in my body. It was like drinking pure oxygen. I took another sip and it was like imbibing the ether of outer space. After a long draft I bathed my face, resisting the urge to plunge headlong into the shallow basin. Instead I sat back on my heels to look around.
From the basin the water spilled from rock to rock: a granite stairway leading down to a green pool scooped out of the stone. Wild irises grew around the pool; water lilies floated on top of it. I made my way down to where Soheila, Liz, and Diana were bent over, gazing into the water. I crouched beside them and stared through crystal clear water down to moss-covered stones. I leaned farther . . . and found myself looking into a pair of moss green eyes, the same color and shape as the stones at the bottom of the pool. I flinched and the eyes blinked—then vanished in a whirlpool that splashed cold water in my face.
“They’re quite frisky,” Liz said handing me a bandanna to wipe my face.
“They’re ready to migrate,” Soheila said, pointing to the far side of the pool. At first all I could see were rapids spilling into a fast-flowing stream, the clear water twisted into skeins of transparent silk where it braided over the rocks, but as we moved closer I saw that those transparent skeins were actually long thin bodies, slender as eels, slipping over the rim of the pool and into the stream.
“Those are undines?” I asked, recalling the illustrations of the winsome maiden Arthur Rackham did for the German fairy tale. She had looked far different from these eel-like creatures.
Excerpted from The Water Witch by Juliet Dark. Copyright © 2013 by Juliet Dark. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.