“Daughters of Silt and Cedar” by Rebecca Mix
I am six years old when Papa leaves me in the swamp. There is no color in the sky, as if even the clouds are weary, huddling together to block out the blue.
I want to go home.
“I love you,” Papa tells me as he ties my wrist to the swollen branch of a half-rotted cedar. “This was never your fault.”
The tentative croak of a bullfrog makes me flinch.
“We’re going to play a game, Greta,” Papa says. “Close your eyes and count as high as you can. When you finish, I’ll come back.”
Fear wobbles in my throat, but I trust him. So instead of screaming, or tearing off the rope, I put my hands over my eyes. “One.”
Papa’s foot slips in the muck as he leaves me.
A twig snaps several years away.
I keep counting, convincing myself with each number he will come back. But by the time the sun claws its way to the middle of the sky and bakes the air I have run out of numbers, and Papa has not returned. I cry. When I finish crying, I chew through the rope, and I walk.
The swamp wants me to die.
It’s nothing personal—I will learn this when I am older. Horse flies bite my scalp until I bleed. Snakes twist around my ankles and snap at my calves. Birds scream warnings, and some of the bigger ones gather stones in their beaks and hurl them at me.
When the day crumbles into dusk, and the swamp has not succeeded, it sends the Will-o-Wisps.
They are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Dozens of balls of buttery yellow light bloom to life all around me, filling the air, fluttering around each other. Some of them change colors, slipping between hues of yellow, blue, and green. They dance and swirl, drawing me over the bogs, guiding me to the deepest parts.
It has taken less to drown a grown man. A child will be easy.
The Wisps celebrate as I sink. They tinkle with laughter and change to hues of purple. As I drown, my toes brush something cold and soft. It breaks apart and clouds the water in chunks of pale gray. Starbursts of pain pop through my lungs.
A hand wraps around my wrist. It is clammy, scaled, and alive.
It pulls me up.
I am six years old when I meet her.
She is like me but not like me. She is also a little girl, maybe only two years older, but she has sharp teeth and a slit for a mouth. Gills droop from her neck, twitching as she eyes me.
“Breathe,” she tells me. Her fingers are webbed, her hands covered in flat silver scales that reach up to her elbows. “I’m so sorry about them—can you breathe?”
The Will-O-Wisps that drowned me bob around us in a silent orchestra of gleaming stars. They inch closer and I flinch.
The girl whips her head around, lips peeled back in a snarl. “Leave her alone.”
The Wisps quiver, as if indignant, and I can only watch.
The girl rises, one of her hands sliding up my arm. Her skin is translucent, and through it I can see swamp water rolling through her veins. A bit of duckweed is caught inside. It wriggles up the crook of her elbow. “He left her here.”
The Wisps pulse twice.
She points at them, her lipless mouth contorting. “I want her to stay.”
The Wisps shiver.
Her face folds. “Please. I’m all by myself here—and she’s just one girl. Please?”
They fold inwards on themselves, tightening until they’re no bigger than a plum, darkening to a deep crimson.
The girl twists to look at me. Her eyes are bright with kindness but beneath them is something darker, a heavy, sticky loneliness that makes the corners of her mouth tilt downwards. “My name is Murga.” She pauses. “You can stay, if you want. I’ll protect you.”
I stare her. I think of Papa, leaving me to drown. The lonely ache inside of me warms a little. “I’m Greta.”
Murga smiles so wide I fear her cheeks will split.
I tell myself I can always go home later. I don’t have to stay here.
Murga takes my hand, and she does not let go.
I am ten, and Murga has taught me to hear the Wisps.
At first their voices were difficult, sliding through me like the water, always just out of reach. But they’re clearer now.
My favorite Wisp is Fiy. She is one of the smallest, her color more sandy than yellow, but she is the fastest.
She is also the bossiest.
“You still smell too human,” Fiy complains as I hunt for frogs. “And you eat too much.”
“I’m hungry.” The swamp has been good for me. Now I am almost as fast as Murga at scaling the great cedars. Almost. If I had her claws, I could beat her.
I crawl the way she taught me, balancing on my fingers and toes. My eyes settle on a bullfrog that perches on a gnarled, exposed root. His throat swells, filling with light under the morning sun.
“I want Murga to cut her hair,” Fiy says. “It looks ridiculous. You need to convince her to cut it.”
“I like Murga’s hair,” I say, my stomach twisting.
I like it especially when it’s wet, slicked back against her head with the thin, curling pieces clinging to her cheeks. It’s the most human thing about her, colored like a splash of candlelight against the swamp.
“It’s too human,” Fiy says.
“It’s pretty. I wish mine was like hers.” I imagine what it would be like to run my fingers through Murga’s hair. An uncomfortable flutter fills my stomach and I slip, crashing to my knees. The bullfrog leaps away, startled.
“Clumsy,” Fiy says.
“You keep bothering me.”
Fiy’s light bobs. “I’m helping.”
“By bothering me?”
“Exactly. You need to learn to stay focused.”
The frog surfaces a few feet away. I wait for his throat to swell again.
Fiy’s not done complaining. “I think you spend too much time with Murga.”
I ignore her. My heart beats a little faster. I like being around her. That’s all.
Today Murga is gone. Fiy tells me she is “tending to the swamp,” whatever that means. Sometimes Murga leaves for days and when she comes home she looks older. More tired. She argues less with the Wisps when they drown the humans that enter our swamp.
“You have to understand, Greta, that you and Murga are very different.”
The frog is facing away from me.
“You cannot stay here forever.”
The frog adjusts, his eyes trained on a dragonfly. My arms burn as I slide forward.
“You will have to leave someday. You are too human. You don’t fit in here.”
I lunge for the frog. He leaps, but my hands are already around him. I squeeze. Something dark and wet inside my heart wants to enjoy this, to feel it pop and squirm under my hands, but Murga taught me that when we kill the birds and frogs we do it quickly. We try to spare them the pain.
I bite out the frog’s throat and it goes limp.
Fiy falls silent, hovering.
At first I needed my food cooked. The Wisps laughed at me, but Murga never did. Now I can eat the frogs and the birds like she does.
I look at Fiy with blood running from my lips. “This is my home.” I take another bite, and the frog’s stomach bursts in my mouth. It tastes of copper and the sharp tang of mayflies. I pop a tendon between my molars and smile. “I’m not leaving.”
I am fourteen, and it is my turn to drown a human.
The only reason I’ve gone so long without having to drown someone is because of Murga. She worries it will be hard on me, but the Wisps insist. If I am to live in the sanctuary of the swamp, I am to help protect it.
It takes hours for her to pick all of the leeches off of me. She combs her clawed hands through my hair and scrubs the filth from my cheeks.
“You have to look normal,” she says, frowning. “Or they won’t follow you in.”
When she finishes, I wish there were more leeches, if only so that her hands would linger on my skin. The idea sends warmth shooting up my spine. Murga is my friend. Only my friend.
Fiy’s words float back through my mind. They haunt me while I wait at the edge of the swamp, where the water is shallow and clear. The trees are thinner, letting more sunlight break through.
My hair is fully dry for the first time in years.
I hate it.
The human I’m to drown is a boy pretending to be a man. He carries his bow awkwardly. His steps are ungainly and long, as if he’s just grown into his body, and it’s hard not to notice that his clothes look like Papa’s.
The realization startles me. I haven’t thought of Papa in years.
I force the thought away, focusing back on the human. Murga told me that the other humans try to kill the swamp because they’re terrified of it—but this young man doesn’t look like a killer.
I smooth my hair away from my face, cringing at the way it feels dry and dead against my fingers. My steps are fast and short as I walk out of the swamp. “Hello? Sir, can you help me? Please!”
The boy freezes. His hand flies to the bow. “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be in there.”
My face crumples in the way I practiced. “My sister,” I gasp. I lurch forward and grab him by the front of his shirt. The cloth is warm against my hands, clean, and the young man smells of cheap pine soap. “Hurry, she fell in the bog and she can’t swim.”
Murga was right. I see the swell of his chest, the way he pulls his shoulders back. He is borrowing bravery. “Where?”
I lock my fingers around his wrist in a weak grip. It’s best if he doesn’t know that I’m stronger than him. “Just around the corner.”
He pauses, uncertain. “Why were you in the swamp?”
“We’re from the village over,” I lie. “We came to hunt for duck eggs.”
“Please, she’s my only sister.”
He’s still unsure, but I can see his resolve weakening. Before the boy can change his mind I take off at a run. I drag him along and soon we are up to our hips in the swamp, wading forward, and I feel stronger with each step.
The boy’s breathing grows labored and quick, and he raises his bow over his head, careful to keep it clear of the water. “How much farther?”
My heart thuds. “Just over here.” Can he feel it, the way the swamp leans towards me, welcoming me? Can he hear the dragonfly larvae dancing at his ankles, eager for an easy meal?
I try not to look at him. His face is clean, his hair neat and clipped. I have forgotten what it’s like to live in a world without murk.
I can’t help myself. I break Murga’s first rule. “What’s your name?”
His eyes slide towards me, then back to the swamp. “Allan.”
“I’m Greta,” I say, not certain why I’m telling him. The cedars are packed closer together now. The water is up to our chests. “What do you do?” The words feel weak, silly, but I can’t stop talking.
“I’m a butcher’s apprentice.”
A small part of me wants to remember what it’s like to sleep in a clean bed. To work with human tools instead of your hands. “What’s with the bow?”
His face darkens. “This swamp is dangerous. The priests have cautioned us to be careful until they can rid it of the curse.”
I nearly stumble. It sounds ludicrous. “What curse?”
He looks at me oddly. “You don’t know about the swamp’s curse? About the demon that summoned it?”
Is he talking about Murga? My heart thuds, and I scramble for something to say. “A demon?”
Allan stops wading. “Wait, how do you not know about the curse if you live a town over?”
“We’re new,” I fumble. “Just moved here.”
He cocks his head to the side, his eyes sweeping the surface of the swamp. “Didn’t you say your sister was drowning?”
I pause. “Yes.”
“Then why is it so quiet?”
My face gives me away, and he lunges.
The deep water makes it hard for him to get a good grip on me and I drop, sinking to the bottom of the swamp. The silt is welcoming and cool against my hands as I search for some kind of weapon. I find nothing. My lungs burn, and I resurface.
Allan is fumbling with his bow, trying to draw a quiver. His eyes are bright with betrayal and terror. “You’re one of them. One of the demons.”
The water is too deep for him to shoot. Allan grabs his bow by the end and swings. He misses the first time, but catches me on the backswing, cracking it across my cheek. Pain blooms through the side of my face. He scrambles away, up onto a log, free of the water where he thinks he is safe. The Wisps twinkle above me but they will not help. This is my kill.
I scramble up the side of a cedar, scaling it with ease. The bark is familiar and warm under my callused hands. Something old and wild rises inside me, clogging my throat, and I am above Allan.
He looks up at me, his face slackening. “Please.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him, and I drop.
I take him to the bottom of the swamp with me. Allan fights as he drowns. My hands are around his throat squeezing, squeezing, and I am trying to make it quick the way I do with the birds and the frogs but he so much stronger. My fingers keep slipping. Twice he comes up for air and I have to push him back down. He bites me, sinks his nails into my arms and pulls. I deserve all of it. By the end, when he has finally stopped moving, I am crying.
He floats face up with his eyes wide open, lips parted in a sigh, throat already purpling. The Wisps bob closer. I close his eyes.
“Not bad,” says Fiy. “Should be faster next time.” She pauses. “Strip him, Greta. Let’s see if Murga was right.”
“Take off his shirt.”
I feel empty and cold, but I obey. My hands shake as I peel away Allan’s shirt. His body is already growing cold in the swamp.
Fiy’s color fades to a choked blue.
There is a tattoo on Allan’s right shoulder, a dark outline of a fist wrapped in smoke. It stirs something in me I cannot place.
“More of them lately,” Fiy says, her voice a little less triumphant. “Murga won’t be happy.”
“What does it mean?”
“Nothing for you to worry about. Murga has it handled.”
Something tells me the tattoo was why Allan needed to die. But it does not make me feel any better.
I want to vomit.
When Murga finds me she loops her arm through mine and takes me to the cedar hollow. We lay there for a long time, curled against each other, our heartbeats slowing.
The tears come fast and thick. As I weep, she wipes them from my cheeks with a knuckle. The day lengthens into night, darkening, and before I fall asleep I hear her voice close to my ear. “I’m sorry, Greta.”
For the first time in eight years, I wonder what I am doing here.
“I think I was wrong, Murga,” I croak. “I shouldn’t have killed him.”
She keeps her arms around me. Her scales are cool against my skin and when she traces the arc of my spine her claws are light, gentle. “I still hate it, after all these years.”
“Then why do it? Why hurt anyone at all?”
She won’t look at me, her eyes fixated on the branches above us. “I never like it, Greta, but you have to understand. The priests are dangerous. Even that boy was one of them. You saw the tattoo on his shoulder, didn’t you?”
I don’t want to agree with her. “Does it matter?”
“It does. It’s why they have to die.”
“That’s easy for you to say.” I shudder. “You’re not human.”
It’s a low blow. She curls away from me, her eyes shuttering, her lipless mouth parted in horror. I understand why the humans would see her as a monster. She is ugly, truly, all teeth and scales.
“That has nothing to do with it,” Murga says.
“It has everything to do with it.”
There’s a gurgle as the swamp around us starts to froth. “I am human. We just look different.”
“You have scales.”
“I am like you.” Steam rises from the water, making the air wet and heavy.
“You are not.”
“Look at me,” Murga demands. “I have human eyes and human hair like you—I grow like you! I—I was like you, and I still am!” Standing above me, her feet planted on that strange hill, Murga looks like some distant goddess of nightmares and silt. The swamp pitches with each rise of her chest.
I can’t help it—it bursts out of me. “Then why stay here, Murga? Why stay in this swamp if people are always trying to kill it?”
She looks away. “You wouldn’t understand.”
I sit up. “Try me.”
“It’s my swamp, Greta.”
“I know that—”
“I made it. I called it. I have to take care of it, and I can’t leave.”
“What does that mean?” I climb to my feet, my hands shaking. “And what do the tattoos mean?”
Murga jumps up, her eyes darting around. Her claws click together as she fidgets. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
I reach for her but she flinches away. I feel hollow, as if someone drained all of the blood from my body and even the swamp water will not fill up the empty space.
When other men that bear smoking fists on their shoulders come, Murga and the Wisps drown them quietly. Even when the Wisps question her, Murga does not ask for my help again.
I am sixteen, and I see him.
It is on a day where there is so much blue in the sky it burns my eyes. Even when I look back into the green and brown of the swamp everything is cast with a faint kiss of azure. It is spring again. The lilies burst free of their pods, and I see him.
He is older now, grayer and bent at his shoulders as if being drawn to the earth. He moves slowly, up to his knees in swamp water. The reeds crack and complain around him as he steals eggs from a duck’s nest.
I can’t help myself. I inch closer, but I don’t dare call out.
It’s him. My papa, who left me here all those years ago.
A reed snaps under my shaking hands.
Papa freezes, his hands on the second to last duck egg. He’s made a basket out of his shirt; the other eggs gleam against the faded fabric. Papa sloshes back out of the swamp, and I watch him go with burning lips. My mouth aches with a thousand questions.
I stay there long after he’s gone, swaying in the water, my eyes drinking up the break in the trees where he disappeared. The lone egg looks out of place, a splash of white against the dead brown nest.
I have been stealing eggs for years, but this is the first time I have pitied the duck.
“I don’t belong here, Murga.”
Murga looks at me, blinking over and over again. She knots her fingers through her hair. “What?”
The Wisps are little more than tiny bits of light among the trees. They’re attempting to spy, but even dimmed they’re easy to spot. Maybe they need to hear this, too.
“I should never have stayed this long,” I tell Murga. Now that I am saying it to her the words feel hollow. But I keep seeing Papa. The image of his face only a few hours before burns in my mind.
“Is this about the boy?” Murga demands.
“I’m not made for this swamp like you are.”
Something dark flashes across her face. “I was not made for this.”
“That’s not what I—”
“Then what?” She takes a step towards me. “Where is this coming from, Greta?”
A thousand lies bloom in my mouth. But instead, truth falls out. “I saw him,” I rasp. “My papa. He’s alive.”
Murga grows very still. “Oh.”
I feel like a fool because of the hope that polishes my voice. “After all this time. Maybe I can talk to him. Ask him why he left me, what happened.”
Maybe he will have a reason that will be good enough for my forgiveness.
The swamp water in Murga’s veins swirls. When she speaks, her voice is quiet and clipped. “He left you here, Greta.”
“I know, but—”
“He abandoned you to die.”
I stiffen. “He said he would come back. Maybe something happened.”
Murga laughs, a low, flat sound. “What makes you think he will want you now?”
Her words a slap. They are the sound of all of the foolish hopes I have been fostering shattering. My eyes burn. “You don’t mean that.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand more than anyone else in this world. I know what it’s like to be left behind.” Murga inhales, a long, shuddering breath that sounds wet and unclean. “He may be your father, Greta, but he is not your home.”
“And this swamp is?” I’m being cruel now, but I don’t care. I gesture at the reeds around us, at the black waters I’ve nearly drowned in. “This place is supposed to be my home? Even the Wisps tried to kill me once, Murga.”
Murga’s eyes burn. “I wasn’t talking about them. I was talking about me.”
It’s like the world is moving faster than I can think. There is so much I want to ask and say, but the words will not come. Somewhere in the distance a chorus frog is singing, its raspy voice climbing in the air.
“I saved you. I pulled you back up when he left you to drown,” Murga tells me. “You are my first and only friend. Why am I not enough for you?”
I take a step backwards, away from her, from the thing rising in my chest that makes this so much harder and more confusing.
I tell myself I belong with other humans, with Papa. Maybe he made a mistake. Maybe he didn’t mean it, or he was forced to leave me there.
“Greta,” Murga says. My name sounds like a plea or a prayer on her lips. I am not yet sure which one.
“I need other people. I need a family.”
“I am your family.” There’s a desperate light in her eyes. It threatens to swallow up the world. Swallow me. “What do you want, Greta? What do you need?”
Everything. Nothing she can give me. Is that even true? I don’t know. That knot is back, the one that has been there since I was a little girl. I feel like I’m ten again, fumbling around in the swamp as Fiy reminds me that Murga is my friend, and only my friend.
“What do you want?” Murga pleads.
“I don’t know.”
Maybe Murga has that knot too, because she takes a step forward, and she kisses me.
It’s a bad kiss, cold, static, strange against her lipless mouth and all her teeth. She pulls back almost immediately, her eyes shuttering.
“I’m sorry.” She tries to break eye contact by looking up but the Wisps are above us, glowing a disapproving red. So instead she looks down at the water.
The knot uncoils. The thought of Papa is still there, but it’s weaker. My mouth burns.
Murga flexes her fingers. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Murga.” On my lips her name is a prayer for something better, something new.
“I should have known better.”
She looks so small, and for the first time in our lives, weaker than me. Fragile. The warmth runs up me, through me. Need crawls up my throat.
I take her cold cheeks in my hands and I kiss her.
Murga’s entire body stiffens, her eyes widening with shock, and then her eyelids flutter. She looks less like a swamp monster and more like a girl. She knots her fingers in my hair, careful with her claws, and I pull her closer.
Murga is no fairytale. She does not taste like sunlight, cinnamon, or anything sweet. She is the night wrapped in dark, wet weeds. Her lips sting of all things that drown. But so do mine.
Above us, the Wisps are jumping between red and purple, some of them furious, some delighted.
Fiy is an apathetic brown. “I win,” she tells one of the Wisps. “Pay up.”
Murga untangles one hand from my hair and waves at them. The Wisps vanish. I feel power crackle through her lips and I wonder what she is, how she became this.
Murga pulls me down. She kisses my throat, my chest, and her hands settle on my hips. Her body presses against mine, and I do not think much of anything at all.
It’s hours before I finally untangle myself from her. Every part of me feels raw and new, and something I am afraid to name blooms in my chest. Murga looks so much smaller curled in the reeds. When she is asleep, she looks happy. The blush to her cheeks is more beautiful than any dawn I have ever seen.
I tell myself this will be enough. This will be home.
But I still leave her to steal duck eggs from the other nests, and fill the one my papa stole from, hoping that he will return.
Two of the Wisps are missing.
“I’m sure you’ll find them,” I tell Murga.
She sits with her hands curled into fists in her lap, staring at the water. A viceroy butterfly darts over the surface, orange wings fluttering in the morning sun. “It’s not like that. They don’t vanish.”
“Could they be traveling?”
Murga shakes her head. “They can’t leave the swamp. They can’t leave me.”
I frown. I inch closer to her so that we sit with our sides touching. She leans into me, and I twist a piece of her hair around my finger. “Tell me what’s really bothering you, Mur. Is it the humans again?”
There have been more of them, all young men with smoking fists on their shoulders. But I can’t stomach offering to help her hunt them. That is one burden she must bear on her own.
“The Wisps are a part of the swamp,” Murga says. “If dark magic kills a part of the swamp, it hurts the Wisps.”
My stomach turns. “Is that what they do? The humans you drown?”
Her mouth twitches. “No, they’re just acolytes. Scouts. It’s the priests that work the magic. They’re the ones we need to hide from.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I told you, I was left behind like you. I made this swamp.”
“I don’t know that that means.”
Murga looks at me with warmth in her eyes, but there’s also a sadness there, thick and deep. “I don’t expect you to.”
But instead of explaining Murga kisses me. When I try to pull back she wraps her arms around me and her kiss grows hungry and desperate. Her hands trace a fire up my legs and I forget my question.
The Wisps leave us alone for the rest of the afternoon. Later, Murga lies with her eyes wide open, watching the sky but seeing nothing, and she does not sleep.
I am eighteen, and Papa has stopped coming for eggs.
I lived on it for so long, my stolen glances of him, the dreams I fed myself. Every time as I crouched in the reeds I imagined what it would be like if I were to rise up out of the water and call his name.
“Greta,” he would sob, and he would take me into his arms and hold me close. “I am so sorry. Please forgive me, I never wanted to do it. I love you. Come home to your family.”
But now he has stopped coming. There are twelve eggs piled high in the nest. They look ridiculous, like a tiny mountain in a long abandoned home. The duck has moved on, and I have rebuilt the nest myself twice now.
As I wait for my papa that will not come, a heron looks on in disapproval, beak tilted down towards the swamp in a permanent frown.
“You’ve got to stop doing this,” Fiy tells me. “It’s unhealthy.”
She won’t leave me alone, but she hasn’t told Murga about the eggs, so I let her come along.
“I like seeing him,” I say, unsure.
“You’re setting yourself up for heartbreak.”
“You are a real pain, you know that?”
“I am a Wisp,” Fiy sniffs, as if that explains anything at all.
Beside us, the heron snags a mouse that was skittering along a patch of dry bog. The tiny mammal’s shrieks puncture the air.
“Maybe Papa is ill.”
“We would be so lucky.”
I roll my eyes. “Just a few years ago you wanted me gone, Fiy.”
Fiy’s light dims, shifting to the blushing maroon of the inside of a cedar tree. “You make Murga happy. That’s all that matters.”
Her name sends warmth rolling through me. But beneath that, swirling, is a slime of guilt. Because even with endless nights of Murga’s kisses and gentle hands I am still restless.
I still do not belong here, not when Papa is out there, and I am still left behind. I ache for a home.
“If you leave, it will hurt her,” Fiy says.
I crunch forward through the reeds.
Fiy shifts to orange, but it’s soft, not the angry hue of flames. “She loves you, you know.”
I swallow. I think I’ve always known. I wonder when I started loving her back, if it started with the kiss, or long before that. Maybe it started the day she pulled me free of the water, all teeth and smiles as she asked me to stay.
Fiy bobs in front of my face. “I know you want answers, Greta, but sometimes questions are easier to live with. You know Murga loves you. Is it worth finding out that your father doesn’t?”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“We care about you, Greta, all of us. We love you.”
I stare at the duck eggs. The heron is still again, eyes trained on the water as it looks for another morsel. My hands are shaking. “Why me, Fiy?”
“Why did she choose me?”
Fiy falls silent. An ant scales one of the duck eggs, working furiously to inspect it for any cracks, but the shell was perfect and unbroken.
Fiy cannot answer me. Instead she says, “You remind me of her.”
“Yes. The way she was, when she first came here.”
I hold very still. “How?”
“She was left behind, like you. She was lost,” Fiy says, her voice softer. “Not yet certain of where her roots belonged.”
The ant has moved to the next egg, but that one is unbroken, too. The heron spears a frog.
I don’t look at Fiy when I ask, “Did Murga create the Wisps?”
Fiy pauses. “In a way. When someone like her comes along, we are drawn. Just like moths to the swamp lights.”
“Where did Murga come from?” I don’t dare breathe.
Fiy tuts. Her color shifts back to her typical sandy color. “That’s not my story to tell, Greta, and you know it.”
I frown. I reach forward and cradle one of the duck eggs.
“Greta,” Fiy warns.
I crack it. The yolk slides out into the nest, pooling among the albumen fluid. I imagine the ant returning to his tiny colony as the hero that found them an eternal feast. I break the rest of the eggs. Someone may as well enjoy them.
Papa is not coming back, so instead I will go to him.
The Wisps have drowned another human, but this one is different from the others. He is worse. When Murga and I go to inspect, she grows shaky and white, her pupils shrinking until the green of her irises threatens to swallow them whole.
The man looks to be around Papa’s age, his body weathered and old, his shock of white hair already graying in the water. But it’s his clothes that Murga won’t stop looking at.
He wears thick green robes that are swirled with markings that look like flames. The smoking fist tattoo is on his shoulder, but it’s on his back, too. Another is printed on his forehead.
Above us the Wisps turn red, shrinking together.
“I thought they couldn’t find us here,” Murga whispers. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
I turn to ask her who they are but instead I see smoke rising through the clouds, a trail of rot against the blue.
“Bad idea,” Fiy warns, but I don’t hear her. I take a step past Murga, towards the smoke, my heart thudding in my chest. The smoke is thin and far away.
It’s coming from the direction of the village where I was born. Where Papa might still be.
If the fire kills Papa I will never learn why he left me behind.
“Greta,” Murga says, and it sounds like a plea. “Don’t.”
“I have to. I’m sorry.” Before she can argue with me I scale the cedar. I fly through the trees and race over the swamp, scaring ducks from nests I have not yet robbed. I do not listen to Murga, Fiy, and the other Wisps calling out behind me as I fly towards the smoke.
All I hear is my heart thudding in my chest, sending a twelve-year drumbeat through my veins that cries why, why, why?
The village where I was born is so unchanged it’s somewhat disappointing. In my dreams, I imagined it falling apart at the seams. First the butcher’s shop would crumble, and then the houses would rot, made weak by my absence. But the only thing different is the smoke that hangs in a low, heavy haze.
I keep pinching the outside of my thighs as I walk, my steps quick and unsure. The smoke is coming from the back of village and with each step my heart slams harder. A new, girlish panic rises inside me. When I find Papa, what will I say? How will I explain it all?
I want to know everything. Why he left behind his only child, the last piece of the mama I never met. I want to understand. When I reach Papa’s yard, my heart stops.
There is a woman, younger than him but older than me. Her belly is swollen with child and there is a waddle to her step when she carries arms filled with sticks across the yard. There are two boys maybe half my age, and they have my papa’s dark hair but they are splashed with the woman’s freckles, both of them carrying sticks.
They’ve built a giant fire right in the road, bathing the entire town in smoke.
The woman twists and nearly drops her bundle. When she looks at me there is no malice, no hatred. She just looks confused. “You lost, honey?”
Realization cracks through me. She has no idea who I am. I brace a hand against the fence to keep from toppling forward and sink my nails into the wood. I stare at the fire. “What are you doing?”
Her eyelids flutter, and her lips part for a moment. “Oh—oh, sorry about the smoke. They said it would help.”
“We called the priests. Phillip has been seeing a ghost. We’re getting rid of it.” She frowns, her brow knitting together. “Say, you look terrible—you all right?”
Two men step out of Papa’s house, their faces hidden by the cowls of their green robes. They walk briskly towards the fire, robes swirling. One of the men raises a hand, and the flames jump higher.
Above me, a heron flees the swamp, squawking in panic.
“Greta,” a voice says. “By the Spirits, it’s you.”
I turn, and standing in the road with a slack face and wide eyes is my papa.
He is even grayer than he was when he stopped coming for duck eggs, as if the world has slowly been leeching the color from him. His eyes fill with tears. “You look like her.”
“Papa,” I say.
“You look like Martha.”
It hurts to hear Mama’s name. I don’t want him to say it again. I move towards him like I’m wading through mud, and below the roaring in my ears, I hear mosquitos buzzing.
“This is a trick,” Papa says.
“You left me.”
His face folds, but he looks at the green-robed men instead of at me. “I’ve repented. Why am I still being haunted?”
I want to laugh. Papa has called some kind of priest because he thinks his daughter’s ghost has returned to punish him. “You tied me to a tree, Papa, in that swamp,” I say. “And you did not come back.”
The green-robed men circle us, but my thoughts are slow and heavy. In the distance thunder that is too close to the earth rips towards us and shakes my bones. I hear magpies screaming.
Papa’s eyes roll. “Why do you haunt me?” His voice is shaking. He looks small and weak.
I should hate him, but I don’t. “You stopped coming for the eggs,” I say. “Why?”
“It’s that swamp,” Papa moans. “It ruins everything. Rots everything.”
“Why did you leave me?”
“She’s close,” one of the priests says.
Papa looks them. “Make it leave. Put her at peace.”
“I’m not a ghost, Papa,” I say. “I’m alive.”
He can’t—won’t—believe me. “First the swamp stole my wife, and now it poisons my mind.” He pulls at his hair. “I’m a good man. I just want peace.”
My voice rises higher. “Why did you leave me? Why?”
“Her eyes. You have her eyes.” His voice weakens. “We had nothing. We were already so hungry. Too many mouths. I had to make a choice. Had to.”
I clear the space between us. The green-robed priests are chanting, raising their hands to the sky. There is smoking coming from their fingers.
From the direction of the swamp comes the sound of all things dying.
I watch as the trees crumble, toppling into one another and tearing their roots clear of the earth. Great clouds of insects darken the sky, fleeing the destruction.
I twist, staring at the man that left me in the swamp all of those years ago. “What have you done?” I demand, seizing him by the front of his shirt.
His eyes widen and the color blanches from his face. “You—you’re—”
“What did you do?”
My father’s pretty wife and his children are screaming, crying, and I can’t stop shaking him. The cedars that sheltered me for twelve years shake the earth as they tumble, and then I hear it.
“You’re alive,” Papa chokes. “How?”
I’m still holding onto him, dangling him there. “Be quiet.”
The swamp is hissing.
Plumes of steam billow towards the sky in great white clouds of evaporating promises. Above the trees, swirling in a whirlwind are the wisps, gone completely white. I watch with my heart in my mouth as they start to wink out one by one.
The swamp is dying, and it’s taking the Wisps with it.
What will happen to Murga?
The priests pull back their cowls and my heart stutters. Tattooed on their cheekbones and foreheads are the smoking fists. One of them takes a step towards me, his lip curling.
He looks a little like Allan.
“It won’t die while she’s in there,” he says to the priest. “She’s the last tether.”
The other priest nods at me. “Then bring her out.”
Their eyes are the driest thing I have ever seen, cracked along the whites, and blood seep from the tear ducts. “You’ve been marked by it,” the first priest says.
I let go of Papa, and take a step back. “What?”
“Come here, girl.”
I point at his tattoos. “What do those mean?”
His lip curls. “We will cleanse you.” He seizes my arm. Something burning snaps through my veins, sweeping through my body, and all I feel is pain.
I am dying.
The priest puts fire inside me. It burns me up, swallowing everything I am in smoke.
I double over, gasping, and he puts his other hand on my shoulder. “Be a good girl and scream.”
I slump forward. Blood drips from my lips. I understand now why Murga and the Wisps would drown any human that got too close.
“Bring her here,” the priest says. “The demon will come for you.”
Papa is on his knees, moaning, and I realize what a horrible, stupid fool he is. He has used me as bait.
I will not scream. When the green-robed priest sends another blast of foul magic through me I bite through my bottom lip. The blood fills my mouth, dribbling down my chin.
“I’m sorry,” Papa is sobbing.
I have waited all my life to hear those words. I spent so many nights dreaming, hoping, stealing eggs to keep my patchwork of hopes together that he might love me. But now they mean nothing.
“I want to be free,” Papa sobs. “Have I not suffered enough?”
He brought these men here. He did this to me again, abandoned me to them instead of the swamp this time.
“Here,” the other priest man says. His lips are cracked and swollen with infection. “I’ll handle her.”
The second priest puts a hand on me, and my scream bursts free.
I am dying, and Murga is all I can think about.
Fiy was right about where my home is.
They both were.
“Greta.” It’s Murga’s voice, punching through the burning. I think it’s a dream, a gift from my mind as the robed men smoke away what is left of me. “Stay away from her!”
Murga is here, standing in the middle of the road. Her eyes are only for me. The claws on her left hand wriggle free and fall to the grass. Blood drips from her fingers.
The priests let me go, roaring in triumph.
There are only four Wisps left. They try to circle Murga, protect her, but their movements are slow and labored. They will die with the swamp.
“Greta,” Fiy cries, fluttering towards me, bobbing up and down as she struggles to stay in the air.
I catch her in my palms and she flutters like the heartbeat of a panicked baby bird. I am burning. The smoke is in my throat, in my veins. I am thirsty, dry, hollowed out.
The robed men reel back, satisfied. One of them starts to chant as the swamp shrivels and dies.
Beneath me, water roils in the earth. It sings to me. Only to me.
Murga stumbles towards me. The webbing between her toes is cracking. The teeth in her mouth fall out, plinking to the ground, and her eyes are bright with agony.
“Greta,” she sobs, reaching for me, wrapping her arms around me. Her body shakes as the swamp dies and it tries to take her with it. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I couldn’t protect us.”
“You have to go,” I gasp. “You can’t be here. It’s not safe. They want you.”
“It’s too late.” The words sound like a goodbye, and I understand.
Whatever Murga was before the swamp has been erased because now Murga is the swamp. When it dies because of whatever spell the priests have cast, Murga and Fiy will die, too.
I am weak, powerless, empty. I sink, holding her. I remember the day she pulled me from the water and gave me back my life.
Papa is still moaning. The priests chant over him. I am a husk and Murga bleeds.
Beneath us, I hear a whisper of water beneath the soil.
I peel Murga’s bloody fingers off of my arm. I press Fiy into her palms. Murga cannot rise to stop me. Her gills shrivel, blackening, and she gasps, struggling for air. Fiy is barely a shimmer in her bleeding hands.
I lean down and kiss her, gently, my lips barely touching hers. I doubt she can even feel it.
A raw and throbbing wound opens up inside me, and I look at my father, and then I look at the priests.
Murga may be of the swamp—but so am I.
The water calls.
“No,” says the first priest, his eyes widening. “You can’t.”
“That’s not possible,” says the second. “There was only supposed to be one.”
Whatever I was when Papa left me behind, I am not that girl anymore.
I am worse.
I am on the first priest before he can react. He raises a hand writhed in flames but my teeth meet his throat. I kill him quickly, the way I did with the birds and the frogs, not because he deserves it but because there is not much time.
The other priest twists towards me, a fanatic’s light in his eyes.
Murga’s swamp is dead and it is not coming back.
But now I understand.
Beneath my heels the grass dampens. Water rises, thickening into mud. Murga gasps on the ground. Another Wisp winks out, dying with Murga and her swamp.
“Greta,” my father gasps. “Let them save us. Let them wipe the evil away.”
“We are not evil,” I tell my father. “We were abandoned, and we survived.”
I turn to look at his pretty wife and their children who stand mortified in the yard. My voice sounds faraway. “You should leave. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Murga created the swamp. I don’t know who left her there, or why, but the day they abandoned her she became the daughter of things wet and dark and rotting. Maybe the change was instant, or maybe it took years. Maybe she changed like me.
The priest reaches a hand towards me. Flames leap into the air, wrapping around me, charring my skin. Smoke fills my mouth but even through the pain I feel the water.
It calls me.
Pinpricks of light shimmer at the corners of my vision.
Where the priest’s flames burn my skin away, scales grow. My fingernails melt and are replaced by claws. My teeth fall out but new ones grow in their place, long, cruel incisors meant for cutting.
I don’t know if my father and his family have left.
I don’t care.
I feel my heart break. Muscles and blood crumple, replaced by silt and swamp water. I breathe, my lungs shriveling, and taste a world where the sunlight doesn’t reach.
I reach for the water, and I pull.
The road buckles. Swamp water spouts from every crack in the earth, drowning my father’s house, quenching the fire. The remaining priest screams as a thousand Wisps are born anew.
At my feet, Murga gasps. Her gills stop shriveling. Fiy flickers and brightens.
The priest roars. He tries to call more flame. Tree roots leap from the earth and wrap around him, strangling him, pulling him down.
The water is knee-deep and rising. I sit, cradling Murga as I drown my father’s village.
“I need your help,” I tell her. “I don’t know how to build this.”
A hawk glides above us, and mosquitos swarm in whining clouds thick enough to block out the sun. Fiy perches in my hair, a crown of sand and light. The new Wisps swirl around, building the new swamp. Murga’s hand guides them as her scales regrow.
My mouth aches where my lips have been replaced by a slit filled with teeth.
“Greta,” Murga says, reaching for me. Her eyes widen. “Your face.”
“Now we match.”
Tears brighten in her eyes. “You are so beautiful.”
“I love you,” I tell her, and I kiss her.
The water rises higher, lifting us. The grass here will die, replaced by silt. My father’s home will rot apart and house the freshwater eels that we hunt at night. The sky will be swallowed by the cedars. We will make this swamp thicker, darker, and deeper than ever before.
Other priests will come, but we will be ready.
I don’t look up to see roots break apart the road or the water moccasins tear the priest apart. I keep my eyes on Murga, watching her come back to me. Willing her to stay.
Nothing else matters.
If I have her, I am home.
Rebecca Mix is an SFF writer and hoarder of houseplants. Her short stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Alternative Truths, The Ginger Collect, Story Seed Vault, and more. Rebecca is represented by Kiana Nguyen of Donald Maas Literary. To read more of Rebecca’s work, visit rebeccamix.com. You can also send her neat puns @wordmixrr on twitter.