From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Watermark

Dear Father:

If you are reading this, Dariael murdered me.

Though I am not your favorite daughter, you also know I’m not the type of sixteen-year-old to feign suicide for sympathy. For the moment, I ask only that you believe in my abilities as a threadkeeper. If my sorcery works, you can save me in your universe. If you’re too busy to follow my instructions, you’ll never see me again.

In my timeline, I wrote this letter with your (presumably) grieving hands after you channeled me through a favorite memory. Naturally, Dariael was in the memory too. We had surprised you with that golden fleece jacket for your thirty-fifth birthday. You hugged Dariael, and I hugged you both.

Let’s stay focused. Do you see the watermark on this paper? No, you didn’t cry hard enough to make such a thing. The watermark means that Dariael drowned me in the river, by Straw Girl’s Point. Yes, the same spot where she rescued me when we were small. A pity that threadkeepers can’t swim.

If you still think my sister is that pig-tailed girl who used to shelter stray cats with every new moon, then I’m wasting my words. But if I have your attention, read carefully and I’ll tell you what to do. Make haste — we are stalked by a demon called time. If you can trouble yourself to forego your morning ale, that would help things; I need you to remain sharp.

Do not hunt for Dariael, for you will only chase shadows. Do not wait for us by the river, for you will only delay the inevitable, or worse, become part of it. I will fall in the water at Straw Girl’s Point and straddle the line between this world and the next. Odds are tipped against my survival, but precariously. As a threadkeeper, I can instruct you how to nudge fate in my favor.

Nobody knew why the founders of our village — all threadkeepers, mind you — named that spot by the river Straw Girl’s Point. Nobody has ever placed a straw girl there, but you will be the first to do so. I need you to build one in my semblance. Use seven hairs from my comb, my threadkeeper’s cloak and all the straw you can take from the barn. If you hurry, you can build it in twenty minutes. When you finish, carry it to Straw Girl’s Point and plant it there. Bring a loaf of bread, but bless it with The Harvester’s Prayer first. You can find that on the third page before the end of my spellbook. Once you’ve done all that, read onward.

You must burn the straw girl. Fire counters water in both the literal and the symbolic planes of existence. A burning semblance of me should lessen the probability that I will drown.

Do not let the straw girl’s head become ash, lest I escape my watery death for a plight even more dire. Once you salvage it, hang it on the crooked tree with the webbed roots, but be sure not to get anything wet. After that, you will notice the crows. Break the loaf of blessed bread into crumbs and feed them.

In my timeline and those that came before it, the crows ate my remains. If you appease them with the bread, they will not hunger for me. I can almost see you frowning. Don’t try to wrap your head around the concept of symbolic rituals, Father — just do as I say.

Watch this letter as the crows eat. If the watermark vanishes, I will escape death in your timeline. I might even be home for supper. I’m sorry I can’t offer more of a reward for your troubles than my own survival.

If the watermark remains on this letter, the sorcery has failed and I will still drown. You must then burn the letter along with the ash from the straw girl’s body. It will carry to the next parallel timeline below yours. Small comfort to me, smaller to you.

Dear Father:

If you are reading this page, at least one attempt has failed and the watermark remains. But if you haven’t given up, neither have I.

You are still at Straw Girl’s Point. Hurry home. Remember the doll I made in the likeness of Dariael, two years ago, when I still idolized her? Oh, Father, I can almost see your face from behind these dead words, but don’t worry. I avoid the dark arts of DuSharn like a drunk should avoid ale. Believe it or not, sticking fiery pins into dolls is one of Dariael’s talents, not mine. I want you to do something far more constructive.

If the hearsay is true, Mother consumed Jack-o-lantern mushrooms while Dariael grew in her belly. She ate them because she saw that which you still ignore — the evil that would fester in Dariael’s heart. You will find more Jack-o-lantern mushrooms, freshly gathered, beside my bed. Place nine of them in the small black kettle, then add enough water to make mushroom broth. Use the broth to wash the Dariael-doll. This should awaken my sister’s conscience, though not enough to deter her from pushing me into the river. She may, however, spell the current to make it more forgiving toward those who can’t swim.

You must continue to weaken Dariael’s anger. As the water boils, go into her room and search the bottom of her closet. You will find a painting that she made of herself, four years old, holding me as a newborn. Speak to the painting. Don’t mention me; just tell her that she’s your favorite daughter. That should be your easiest task yet.

One last labor awaits you. Leave her closet and pull open the loose floorboard in the north corner. You’ll find a bronze harp with neatly cut strings. It belongs to Josrah, the mute — Dariael’s would-be lover. If that doesn’t surprise your sharp fatherly instincts, perhaps this will: he plays for me, not Dariael. In the morning, before you wake, and after dusk, when you are so soundly asleep. He plays for me.

Tie the harp strings together. It will play on its own — Josrah’s favorite song, backwards. You won’t see the strings move. You’ll only hear the song in your mind, like those voices that sometimes startle you awake as you drift between dreams and reality. Let the harp play. Watch the watermark. Pray . . . if you’re in the mood.

Dear Father,

If you receive this letter, I am alive. Before, I might have said, “thank you for your charity.” Now, I’ll simply say “thank you” and charm this paper with a mental image. Do you see my smile? It’s faint, but it’s for you. Do I see you smiling back? Come now, you can do better than that.

Yet perhaps you should have let me drown. My last letter was a cry for help, but this one is a warning. Keep away from me, and keep everyone else away. I’m going to destroy innocent lives. I don’t know how, or when, but I don’t want those lives to be yours. This is not something I can fight — it’s written in the future memory of my feelings. Memory that infected me like poison ivy as I climbed out of the river and breathed on my hands to keep warm. I am still scratching my skin.

Once yours,

Etinaye

Michael was born in the Bronx, in 1978. He now lives in Mamaroneck, NY, and holds a BS in computer science along with an MA in creative writing. He’s a Clarion South graduate, and he earns his living as a game developer. “Watermark” was loosely inspired by Loreena Mckennit’s song “The Bonny Swans” (based on the ancient murder ballad, Binnorie), and is one story in a series. Some of Michael’s favorite books are Ender’s Game, Battle Royale, Les Miserables, and the Song of Ice and Fire series.”

Learn more about the background of the story and discuss it with the author in Michael Greenhut’s Author Spotlight.

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