Undine

By Lydia Mischkulnig

Translation Frances Jackson

 

And another summer has come and gone – and where were you?  I spent the whole time sitting on a bench and keeping an eye on the kids and waiting. What for?

As likely as not, you’re afraid of normality. So read these lines: have you ever heard the story of the fisherman from Annabichel who took off his pyjamas one night and put on his smartest suit? He crept out of the house on tip-toe to avoid waking his wife and his rascally sons. Without a sound, he locked the door behind him. The silvery willows on the bank curved upwards like archways towards the star-topped dome of a great hall. The lake was unruffled, a shimmering dancefloor, crystalline. The fisherman untied the rope. He pushed off from the bank and the boat left a trail in the water and the tiller brought forth ripples and harmless eddies. The fisherman headed for the midst of the lake, where water nymphs lived in the sweet nothings of the deep. He focused his gaze on the little church on the opposite bank, took his bearings from a dove made of gold that shone more brightly than all other metals in the night. This little church had been built long ago by one of the water nymphs. She was to blame for the death of her lover; she had seduced him and when he left her for his human wife, she had her revenge. The fisherman was afraid of such a water nymph, since if he returned to his warm-blooded wife, like his predecessor before him, he would be threatened with a devastating flood which would overtake him and his wife and kill them both. 

Jealousy is a catastrophe for mystical and non-mystical females alike. It would seem to be perfectly natural. In truth the fisherman simply wanted to destroy his wife and chose this complicated, circuitous route across the lake and its legends to do so. After all, who wants to burden himself with guilt?

 The water nymph was condemned to keep the system intact. To atone for the bond of marriage that had been torn asunder, she had to construct a little church. She had to mix the mortar with her own tears, building up the little church stone by stone.           

The sensitive fisherman knew of this story and longed for such a water nymph with ample potential for passion, but didn’t want to put his personal circumstances on the line. As they say when the passion peters out, he was certainly fed up to his back teeth. He brought the tiller aboard and sat in the boat and lay in wait. He did not have to wait long before a tail, gleaming like silver, swam around his boat. Splish, splash. The man hung on to his planks for dear life: he was afraid that he might capsize because of the frisky fish tail that was stirring up the water, acting like a mixer that whisked the waves and propelled the slipstream towards the centre of the lake by pushing against the boat, before finally the torso of a shapely nymph materialised from the water droplets in a somersault above the water, and a blonde mane sent a shower cascading down. Then the being surfaced, and he saw the beautiful face of a water nymph – all woman, complete with skin and hair. And what about the scales?

It didn’t take long before she found him beautiful, too, since she had no objections to his circumstances. The fisherman, now hungry for an encounter, took a bold, headlong dive into the water. While with the water nymph in her element, he found that she had a commanding presence. But as daybreak drew closer, he grew afraid of leaving behind his grounded existence, afraid that he would never slip back into his old routine and that his wife, who was caught up in the circumstances, would be able to tell that he had made her cuckold of her own routine at first cock’s crow. So rather than having to abandon the water nymph, (as that would have been a loss as well), he asked her whether she fancied a trip to the seaside with him, and suggested that if it turned out they had a lot in common, they might like to embark on life’s journey together. The wife’ll cope, he said.

The water nymph was keen, and trustingly followed the exciting man ashore. Once they had reached the bank, he helped her out of the water. As she wasn’t able to walk with the fish tail, he had to carry her to the garage and plop her down in the grass. He opened the garage door. Instead of starting the engine, he pushed the car out of the garage and to the driveway of the property, to make sure he didn’t wake any sleeping custodians of the system. He picked up the water nymph, carried her to the car, and sat her in the passenger seat. For her own safety he also fastened her seatbelt. The fish tail dangled from the seat and dripped. The mat in the footwell was made of rubber. A puddle slowly formed.

The fisherman sat down at the wheel, started the car and drove off, and kept going faster and faster. The pair high-tailed it in the direction of Italy. But no sooner had the intrepid travellers reached the first major city – Udine, it was, in case you were wondering – than Undine began to moult.

Just so you’re aware…

 

From Die Paradiesmaschine. Erzählungen  Haymon Verlag: 2016.