Originally published in Realms of Fantasy, June 2011. Distribution in any form without written permission from the author is forbidden.
The Tides of the Heart
by David D. Levine
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The house was a nice Craftsman bungalow, sturdy and square, with good solid gutters and no problems I could feel from the porch. I pushed the bell.
The guy who came to the door was a head taller than me, but going soft in the gut. "Are you... from Lou's Plumbing?"
"I am Lou's Plumbing," I said. "Louise Hartmann. We spoke on the phone."
The guy flinched at the strength of my grip. "Sorry. I was expecting..."
"Someone taller? Yeah, I get that all the time." He'd been about to say "a man," of course, but I didn't have time right now for the usual dance around my gender. I was scheduled for salvage on a big demolition job in the Pearl today, and I'd only squeezed this guy in because he'd said it was an emergency. "So, what seems to be the problem?"
He showed me a kitchen sink half full of standing water, and the same in the tub. "Which way to the basement?" I asked, pretty sure I knew what the problem was.
He led me down the stairs and I knelt over the floor drain. Placing my hands on the cool concrete to either side of the rusty grille, I extended my perceptions through the concrete to the lead pipe below.
It was just as I'd suspected: there was a nixie living in the drain. Typical for a bungalow of this vintage. There's something about that lead U-bend they find comfortable. But this one was pissed off about something, which explained the backup in the kitchen and bath.
The guy was still standing on the steps. "What do you see?"
I sighed to myself. There was nothing to "see" -- a nixie is just a stretch of water with an attitude. I reached my mental fingers past the nixie and quickly found the reason for its annoyance. "Roots," I said. "You've got a root intrusion in your main drain." I stood, brushing my hands on the nubbly fabric of my coverall. "I've got an electric auger in the truck that'll clean them right out." The roots weren't enough to cause the clog by themselves, but they were making the nixie unhappy. Clearing them out would restore the balance.
"Depends on how long it takes."
It turned out to be almost three hours. The roots were so dense and prickly that the nixie couldn't get out of the way of the auger, so I had to coax it out into a bucket before I could get to work. And before I could do that, I had to convince the customer to leave me alone -- I didn't want to try to explain why I was holding a bucket next to the drain and whispering.
By the time I finally got the nixie back into the drain all the tools properly racked in my truck, it was almost noon. Everyone at the demo site would be on break until one o'clock, so I had time for a leisurely lunch.
I parked the truck on the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge and walked across the river with my lunchbox, savoring the powerful flow of the Willamette below the bridge's metal grid. But when I was a little more than halfway across I felt the bridge shudder beneath my feet, as though a big truck were going by. But it was no truck -- it was the river itself, churning and trembling like a snake with indigestion.
I stopped, clutching the handrail. I'd never felt such a thing before. It was a weird, seasick sensation, the river's spasms making the bridge roll beneath my feet like a ship at sea. But it only went on for a few seconds.
A passing cyclist pulled over next to me, balancing with one hand on the rail. "Was that an earthquake?" he said.
"I'm not sure..."
"Not much of one if it was. Were you here for the Spring Break Quake?"
"Yeah, but this one wasn't like that."
"That one was a real doozy, wasn't it?"
"Yeah." But that wasn't what I'd meant. Whatever this had been, it hadn't been an earthquake at all. More like a riverquake, if there was such a thing. I'd have to ask my mentor Steve if he knew anything about it.
The cyclist and I chatted for a bit about earthquakes we'd known before he rode off with a little salute. After that I leaned on the railing, looking down over the now-peaceful river, until I regained my composure.
I continued to the other end of the bridge, then walked down the esplanade to the Salmon Street Springs and sat on a bench with my lunch. I've always enjoyed this fountain, with the ever-changing dance of the jets above ground paralleled by the complex flows of water through the pipes below. It was all controlled by computers, of course, but it felt natural and refreshing and pretty soon I felt much better. Bathing-suited children laughed in the spring sunshine, darting from one nozzle to the next, half hoping and half fearing they'd be drenched by the next big squirt. Unlike me, they couldn't feel it coming.
The kids made me wonder how Shelly was doing. Even though we hadn't been a couple for over two years, we were still best friends -- which was a good thing, since she worked for the water bureau and we couldn't completely avoid each other even if we'd wanted to. She'd gotten domestic-partnered with her new sweetie Jenni on the very first day it became legal, and I'd just heard that they were doing the artificial insemination thing.
I didn't know how I felt about that.
Don't get me wrong -- I was happy for them. But the news reminded me that I'd had my chance with Shel and blown it, the same way I'd blown every other relationship I'd ever had. Despite the stereotype of lesbians and U-Hauls, I'd never moved in with a lover; in fact, I never seemed to be able to hang onto a girlfriend for more than a couple of months. It's not as though I didn't know why... Cindy said I was "grabby," Linda called me "Octopus Girl," and Debra-the-firefighter thought I was "too touchy-feely." Physically I was very affectionate, but when it came to an emotional connection I always seemed to hold a part of myself back. So when Mara came along, I tried to change my pattern. But physically I felt strait-jacketed, chafing and struggling against the limits I'd placed on myself, and emotionally... well, when we both realized I was just faking it, we'd blown up in a toxic firestorm of recriminations that just about put me off dating for good.
I often told myself that if I lived with a woman I'd run the risk of her finding out about my Guild work, but I was sometimes honest enough to admit that was only a rationalization. After all, most of the guys in the Guild were married or partnered, and they managed to keep it secret.
The Guild had to be kept secret. Our job was to maintain the balance between this world and the other one, and the more the general public knew, the harder that would be.
After lunch I walked back to the truck, then drove up to the job site in the trendy Pearl District, where three residences were being torn down for a mixed-use condo/retail development. Although I agreed with most Portlanders that increased density was better than urban sprawl, I still hated the loss of those good old houses. At least the developer was salvaging them first, removing the old fixtures and millwork for re-use.
That was my job. It wasn't glamorous, but not everything I do touches on the other world. Guild or not, I'm a plumber, and a girl's gotta eat.
The foreman was a guy named Charlie Bates, lean and black and impeccably dressed. He was much too smooth for his office, which was the usual job site trailer with the usual splintery woodgrain paneling inside. "You're late," he said as he handed me the release forms.
"Sorry. I had an emergency call." I scrawled my signature and handed the clipboard back.
Charlie checked the forms and gave me a badge. "Hey, did you feel that earthquake?"
"Radio says there's actually been a whole series of mini-quakes this week. End times comin'." But he gave me a little wink to show he wasn't serious. "You'd better get moving now; the carpenters are four hours ahead of you. Use your own best judgment about what's salvageable, but don't dawdle -- we have to get the whole site leveled by the end of the day Friday." It was now Thursday.
"Got it," I said, and grabbed a hard hat on my way out.
Inside the chain link fence, the job site was a mess of dust and grit and splinters. A big yellow excavator stood by, a hulking muscular machine with a giant claw that would rip those houses down in a matter of hours once they were salvaged. One of them was already bare of its decorative millwork, with the second in the process of being stripped. The third...
It was like meeting an elegant older woman at a party. A woman whose beauty arises from the wisdom of her years, a woman sheathed in smooth black velvet, a woman clasped with diamonds at ears, wrists, and throat. You just want to take her in your arms right there and then, but you know you can't, because she's so far above you.
The third house's paint was cracked and peeling, with rough gray wood beneath. Weeds, and even small trees, grew from cracks in its front walk. But the house stood straight and tall, gracefully proportioned and ornamented with a tasteful minimum of gingerbread, and not a single window pane was cracked.
This was no ordinary abandoned house. Something was protecting it. It ached of the other world.
Three older women stood outside the chain link, tut-tutting to each other about the sorry state of the world today. "'Scuse me, ladies," I said, "but can you tell me anything about that house there?"
"Nobody's lived there as long as I can remember," said the one with the Beavers baseball cap.
"It dates from 1850," said the one in plaid. "Supposedly Captain Couch built it for his mistress."
"Huh." John Heard Couch, pronounced "kooch," was a sea captain and one of the founding fathers of Portland. A whole square mile of the city, including Chinatown, the train station, and the Pearl, used to be his property, and we were right in the middle of it.
I thanked the ladies for their time and made my way up the walk. Although the land was pretty flat here, it felt like walking uphill. Each front step felt three feet high, and when I crossed the porch it was like walking into a stiff wind. It was only my native talent and Guild training that made it possible for me to continue; any ordinary person would have felt vaguely uncomfortable and turned around. Probably wouldn't even remember having tried.
I'd brought a prybar with me, but the front door swung open to my touch. Stepping over the threshold felt like pushing through a gluey membrane, but once I was inside the feeling of pressure vanished completely.
I found myself in a tall, elegant entry hall, with a long straight staircase sweeping up on the right and a spacious parlor to my left. The place smelled like my grandmother's attic, a little musty but not unpleasantly so.
There was no furniture at all.
There was also no dust.
Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.
I closed my eyes and held out my hands to either side. What I felt was unlike any house I'd ever been in. Pipes ran in bizarre, random directions through every single wall and floor, like a mad dryad's trail or a poem written in some alien language. But with the house's water shut off it was a dead trail, a poem unread.
There was one other thing here I'd never felt before, something I couldn't put a name to. A sense of enormous power under great pressure, like a deep ocean current. I headed up the stairs to the locus of the sensation.
In the clawfoot bathtub lay an undine.
My heart damn near stopped.
I've been in the Guild for most of my life, ever since my sponsor and mentor Steve McGonagall spotted a natural talent in a six-year-old shirtless tomboy playing endlessly with the hose in her front yard. In that time I'd met nixies, nymphs, sprites, nereids, and various other water spirits. All of these were pretty much the same kind of creature -- in the same way that a cat and a cow are both mammals -- being inseparable from the water in which they lived. Even undertows and tsunamis were pretty much the same thing, just bigger and meaner. But there was a whole separate class of intelligent water spirits, including kelpies, sirens, and undines, that I'd never encountered and never wanted to. They could sink ships. They could cause horrendous storms. And they were notoriously temperamental.
This one, though, wasn't going to be hurting anyone any time soon. If the undine in the Guild manual was Venus on the half shell, this was a spoiled oyster.
The undine lay on her back in the tub, a human female figure made all of water, with sea foam forming the hair on her head and elsewhere. But the foam swirled sluggishly, and the water of her body was still and murky. Her breasts lay flat and shriveled on her chest; her cheeks were sunken. She smelled like a stagnant pond.
And then her eyes flickered open: two dark whirlpools of endless depth and power. At the sight of me she gasped, the air gurgling in the waters of her chest.
At that moment another quake struck, rattling the little Victorian bathroom's windows and the lid of the tank above the toilet. I held onto the sink until the tremor passed.
"Help me," the undine said, in a voice like the wind off the sea.
"Turn the water back on?" Charlie said to me, one elegant eyebrow raised. "You have no idea how much of a pain it was to get the whole block shut off."
"It's really important," I said. I didn't know where the undine had come from or how she'd wound up in the house, but without free-flowing water she would certainly die. If I let such a rare and powerful creature pass from the world, the balance between this world and the other would be thrown off so badly it would take decades to restore. And if her distress was causing the quakes, as I suspected it was, I didn't want to know what might happen to the city if she died. "The, uh, the historic plumbing needs to be washed out before I can salvage it." Lying to the public is an important part of being a Guild member, but I've always been crap at it.
"Uh." My mind thrashed, like treading water in a whirlpool. "You shouldn't be able to tear down that house anyway. It's... it's seriously historic."
"Yeah, there was some noise about that, but the developer got eminent domain on the whole block." He shrugged. "Not my department. Now you get back there and finish your job. Or don't. It's up to you. That house is coming down tomorrow, and if some historic plumbing goes to the landfill along with the rest that's just too bad." He leaned over his desk. "And you don't get paid."
"I get it."
"Hey Shel," I said, the phone warm in my hand. When we'd been together we'd been Shel and Lou, like a couple of old Jewish guys. "How's the baby-making business?"
"Expensive. I keep telling Jenni we should have gone the turkey-baster route, but we couldn't agree on a donor. What's up?"
"I need a temporary water service permit. Right away."
A power saw started up nearby. I pressed the phone to my ear and moved to the other side of the house where it was a little quieter. "Fire hydrant, short term, for a residence."
Shelly's keyboard clattered. "For how long?"
"Just until Friday." One way or the other.
I told her. The house didn't have a street number on its front wall, not too surprising given its history, but it was painted on the curb.
"Are you sure about that? According to the records, it's a vacant lot."
Of course. "Yes, I'm sure."
"You've got a double check backflow valve, right?"
More keys clattered. "Okay, you're good to go." She gave me the permit number and I wrote it on the back of my hand.
"Thanks a million, Shel. Give Jenni a kiss for me."
I went to my truck and got the special five-sided wrench and the valve to convert the fire hydrant's power to something residential plumbing could handle. Fortunately I had permits for both of those already. My ex Debra-the-firefighter had helped me get them.
Nobody noticed me uncoiling the hose and running it from the fire hydrant to the house. Everyone swarming the job site was on his own business, and under the same schedule gun as I was. Though my situation was a little more urgent.
Naturally, the house didn't have a water meter. It took me about fifteen minutes to cut the line at the curb and splice in a T, losing a few gallons of water in the process. I swore and waited for another earthquake, but I guess the loss wasn't noticeable. Finally I fitted the big red-painted wrench onto the pentagonal nut on top of the hydrant and pulled.
"Taking a drink from a fire hose" isn't just a metaphor. The hydrant's flow surged with power that I could feel beneath my feet all up and down the block. But the step-down valve did its job and I didn't feel or hear anything leaking from the house. Now I had to check on the undine.
With the water flowing through the house's strange pipes, pushing through its defenses was even harder than it had been before. I was panting and sweating by the time I got to the porch.
I stepped through the door.
And was engulfed by an enraged tsunami.
Water battered my face. Water pummeled my chest. Water pressed me against the door and forced itself into my nose. I choked, tasting salt, feeling it burn in my nose. Then the water receded and I collapsed to the sodden carpet.
I looked up. The undine stood above me, now a swirling waterspout in female form, with clouds for hair and lightning eyes. She gestured with both hands and another wave engulfed me, flinging me once more against the door. "I'm trying to help you!" I gasped as the second wave ebbed. "I was the one who turned the water back on!"
The third wave slammed me even harder, cracking my head against the door behind me. I floated, half-stunned, as the waters raged around me, trying to hold my breath while the currents shook me like a dog with a rag doll. Again the wave withdrew, leaving me choking on the floor.
The fourth wave would surely finish me.
But the fourth wave didn't come.
After a while I managed to stop hacking long enough to get a decent breath, and raised my head to see why I was still alive.
The undine, too, had collapsed on the floor. No longer as shriveled and feeble as she'd been in the tub upstairs, she wasn't a raging goddess any more either... more like a normal human woman, maybe a little on the skinny side, formed of swirling clear water. Clearly she'd overexerted herself in attacking me.
I hoped she hadn't killed herself.
Still coughing, I crawled across the carpet toward her. It wasn't nearly as soaked as I'd expected, and I soon realized why: all the water in the room was being drawn back into her liquid body. By the time I got to her, even my hair was dry, and the undine's form had become attractively zaftig. Just my type, I thought, apart from being immortal, inhuman, and quick to anger.
The undine's eyes fluttered open, still dark as storm clouds but now free of lightning. "You are the one?" she said, her breath the salt air after a storm at the coast. "You are the one who caused the water to return?"
I had to turn away and cough some more water out of my lungs before I could reply. "Yes," I managed at last. "I couldn't let you die."
"I am sorry, then, for my attack." She raised herself to one elbow, flowing like a dream into the new position; though her outward form was human, she was still a creature of liquid and currents rather than bone and muscle. "I feared you were the hated Binder, drawn by my weakened state, returned at last to do away with me for good and all. But now I see you are no man at all."
"The Captain," she sneered. "The Navigator. The Founder. The Couch." She pronounced it "kooch," and her intonation made it a curse. "The one who caught my heart, drew me to this place, then wove the net of life and metal that prisons me here."
"And how long ago was this?"
"One hundred and fifty-nine summers and one hundred and fifty-eight winters."
Now I grasped what must have happened. Although the formal Guild in Portland only went back to the city's population boom after WWII, there have been natural talents as long as there have been people, and Captain Couch must have been one of those. He'd found some way to trap the undine, then engineered the house with its bizarre plumbing to keep her there. That's how the Guild works: although we can sense the other world with our talents, we can affect it only by manipulating the four elements in the physical world.
"He caught your heart, you say."
The undine's brows drew together and I felt the storm gather behind her eyes. "He wooed me and he flattered me and he promised we would marry. He built for me a fine house." She gestured all around. "But when I stepped inside, I found I could not leave. He kissed me once and then he left me here."
Undines are incurable romantics, and have a real tendency to fall in love with human men, even though when an undine marries a human she loses her immortality. I don't get it, myself. But apparently Captain Couch had known this fact and taken unfair advantage of it.
"What a prick," I said.
I just blurted it out, the same way I would if I were talking to a woman at a bar, and immediately wished I could grab my words back before they struck her beautiful wave-like ears. How could I talk like that to someone so... so refined, so ethereal, so supernatural?
But then she smiled. And I felt her heart warm toward me.
I've never felt such a thing before. But, of course, her heart was made of water.
Just as I was about to speak, a tremendous crash from outside rattled the windows and made the whole house shudder. We both turned toward the sound.
Outside the window, the excavator was beginning to tear down the house next door. The enormous metal claw grasped the roof at its peak and pulled, tearing off a hunk of joists and rafters and shingles. Nails and shreds of insulation rained down as the huge yellow machine turned and dumped the hunk into a metal bin. It landed with a thundering clang that I felt in my gut. Then, with a diesel roar and a whine of hydraulics, the claw machine returned to the house for another bite.
The protective effect that had held Couch's house inviolate for a hundred and fifty years only extended to the property line. It wouldn't hold that back for a second.
Charlie was not pleased with me. "No, we cannot delay demolition. I don't care how historic that house is. I don't care how much trouble you're having with the antique water heater. I don't care if you've found a whole freakin' nest of endangered snail darters in the attic. We are on a schedule here, and that house is coming down tomorrow. With you in it, if necessary."
"We have to get you out of here today," I told the undine, whose name was Naïda, pronounced "ny-ee-da." But she couldn't pass through the door or any of the windows. When she tried, she only flattened against the barrier. Even the basement was off-limits to her.
I tried cutting off the water to part of the house, but that just made her cry out in pain and set off another earthquake.
I tore the plaster off the living room wall with my prybar, revealing the strange and convoluted pipes of Naïda's prison. The pattern made no sense to me. I tried moving some of the pipes around, hoping to create an opening in the net, but everything I tried hurt her.
I sat in the living room, looking through the open front door at the bustling job site outside. No one even looked at the house -- it was still protected by Couch's work. I remembered how hard I'd had to push to get through the front door the first time I'd come in. "Maybe if we both worked together we could get you through."
"We could make an attempt," she said, with a small shy smile.
We stepped together to the front door, with me standing behind her. Hesitantly I reached out one hand and laid it gently on her hip. Her skin felt like water-skiing, wet and soft and warm, yet firm and vibrantly resistant.
My heart pounded. But what was I nervous about, really? Saving an undine, or the close proximity of this warm, feminine creature? "Ready?" I put my other hand on her other hip.
Naïda nodded. Was she, too, trembling?
I swallowed and leaned my shoulder into the space between her shoulder blades, pressing her against the barrier. The warm fluidity of her body resisted the effort -- it felt like living tissue, though unlike flesh and bone. She grunted, and I felt her torso thrum with the sound. "Am I hurting you?"
"Keep pushing," she said through gritted teeth. "I think... we are getting... a little farther in..."
I pressed harder, putting all the strength of my back and legs into it, the smooth warmth of her watery skin trembling beneath my cheek. I could feel the strain in her as I crushed her against the unyielding barrier, but she refused to complain, bearing the pressure for long minutes. At last another quake began, rattling the house's structure, and she shrieked in anguish. Panting, I fell back, and she landed with a soggy thud on the carpet beside me.
"I'm sorry," I said, sitting up and taking her hand as the tremor subsided.
"Do not regret," she gasped, and laid her other hand on my cheek. "I thank you for your endeavors."
I took her in my arms, the warm moist weight of her pressed against me. She was so brave, so steadfast, so fearless... there had to be some way to save her.
Steve, my mentor, was mostly retired now. He'd gone all round and gray, and he moved like his bones ached, but he still had that bricklayer's grip. We sat at his kitchen table, with Guild manuals and maps spread all over the smooth cool Formica. Outside, night had already spread its blanket over the city.
"Lookie here," he said, and smoothed out an old plat map of Portland. "This is Couch's Addition." He traced the boundaries of a rough triangle bounded by Burnside, 23rd Avenue, and the Willamette River. "And here's your undine." His rough finger smacked down. "Right in the middle of it."
"Trust an old bricklayer. She's the foundation of his empire."
We hauled out more maps, including some arcane Guild treasures I'd never before been allowed to handle. Fault lines, underground streams, ley lines... they all passed right through, or at least near, the house.
Steve tapped his nose with one finger, as he often did when deep in thought. "I feel a right fool," he said after a time. "We should have known all along that she was there... that everything depended on her."
"You should see those pipes. Couch was some kind of genius, and he wanted to make sure nobody would ever find out she was there. If the water hadn't been cut off, even I probably wouldn't have been able to force my way into the house the first time."
"Maybe so." He tapped his nose again. "But now we've got a bit of a situation."
I waited. I had a feeling I wasn't going to like this.
"I believe," Steve said at last, "that Portland's entire maritime economy has been driven by the presence of this undine, since 1850. She may be the reason that Portland overtook Oregon City as the territory's preeminent city. In a sense, she is the city. And if she dies, or even if she goes free..."
Economic collapse. Earthquakes. End times.
"It would be bad," I said.
"It would be bad," Steve said, nodding.
Steve called in Todd Piaskowski, an HVAC guy, and Hank Muller, a furnace guy, to help. Together we formed what the Guild called a "full house" of water, earth, air, and fire. We pounded our brains against the problem for hours, trying to get our hands around a very thorny problem without getting injured.
Finally, about one in the morning, we agreed we couldn't think of anything better than the plan we had. We gathered our equipment and headed off in my truck.
None of us spoke as we drove through the dark and empty streets.
Our first stop was the Salmon Street Springs. Hank and Todd stood watch while Steve and I opened the control box, rejiggering the fountain's computers to a flow pattern approximating Couch's design. If this worked, the fountain would sustain Naïda and keep her tied to Portland, though allowing her more freedom than she'd had before. There were enough ley lines and underground streams in this area that she'd still be connected to the city.
Todd cut the lock on the job site's chain link fence, and we drove the truck up to the house, passing right under the raised claw of the excavator. It waited atop the mound of rubble where the other two houses had been, as though hungry for more. I helped Steve push his way through the house's defenses, then left him there to talk with Naïda while Todd, Hank, and I hauled tools and materials inside. We set up in the kitchen, close to the sink.
After about an hour we were as done as we were going to be. Steve had built a rough and sloppy pentacle of brick on the kitchen floor, and I'd surrounded it with a circular metal trough of water. A propane burner sat atop each point of the pentacle, unlit, and Todd had rigged up some fans and vanes to send air swirling around the thing in a clockwise direction.
A pipe led from the center of the pentacle to the drain under the sink.
"Doesn't look like much," Hank said, poking at the still-wet mortar.
"It'll do," said Steve.
As we'd worked, Naïda had sat watching, with worry rolling off of her like cold air from an open freezer. The plan was to temporarily transform her into elemental water, then send her down the drain and through the sewers to the Salmon Street Springs.
Nothing like this had ever been done before.
Hank flicked an empty cigarette lighter, striking sparks, and lit each of the propane burners. Then Todd switched on the fans. The air began to whirl around the room, dragging the water in its trough, and each of the little blue flames moved in a clockwise circle. Under it all the brick pentacle stood firm, lending its strength to the assemblage. I felt the flow of the other world swirling in a vortex around the pipe in the center.
"It's time," said Steve, and held out his hand to the undine.
Naïda sat in the corner, shivering, and hugged her knees tightly to her chest. A minor tremor shook the earth. "I am not strong enough."
I stood before her and placed my hands on her shoulders. "There's no other way."
She looked up at me, those dark whirlpool eyes now clouded over with fear. "Hold me," she said, and flowed up into my arms.
We stood together, drawing strength from each other, until she felt ready. Then, still holding my left hand and looking over her shoulder at me, she extended one foot into the vortex.
The foot began to melt, to stretch and twist, to flow into a new, inhuman shape.
And she screamed.
Even Steve, whose hearing was none too keen these days, clapped his hands over his ears. Naïda's scream was a horrid, piercing thing that wrenched my gut even harder than her hand clenched mine. The earth juddered and shook beneath us, making the propane flames gutter.
"Stop it!" I shouted. "It's killing her!"
Hank twisted the valve on the propane tank. The flames puffed out, the vortex stilled, and Naïda's foot returned to its previous shape. She fell heavily against me, sobbing into my shoulder.
"She was right," I told my Guild colleagues. "She's too weak to take it." She'd endured a week without free-flowing water before I showed up, and hadn't yet recovered her full strength. If she stepped all the way into that pentacle, there was no way she would survive.
And I couldn't bear the thought of that.
A warm, wet hand laved my cheek. I opened my eyes. "It is a pity we cannot marry," Naïda said. "Then at least you and I could be together for one lifetime."
At that moment three facts snapped together in my head.
The first fact was something about Oregon. After a couple of years of backing and forthing, we'd finally settled on a compromise in the gay marriage debate, and it was now legal for same-sex couples to become registered domestic partners.
The second fact was something about undines. Undines are prone to fall in love with humans, but if they get married, the undine becomes mortal.
The third fact was something about me. I was crazy in love with Naïda, although I hadn't really grasped the fact until just now.
I explained my idea.
The five of us argued about it for hours. There was no telling what the effect of a same-sex domestic partnership with an undine might be, but Steve knew an awful lot about the other world and he was pretty sure that only one of two things was likely to happen.
One was that Naïda would turn mortal. Portland might not be as prosperous as it was when she was an undine, but as long as she was alive it would be okay. We'd have one human lifetime to find another way to keep the city stable. And Naïda and I would be together.
The other was that I would be destroyed for my presumption.
I swallowed hard. I could run away, the way I'd run from so many other relationships. Or I could risk my life to save the city and get the girl.
"I'll take the chance," I said, and pulled out my phone.
"Who the hell are you calling at this time of night?" Hank asked.
"My ex Cindy. She works for the county clerk's office."
"H'lo?" Cindy muttered, when she finally picked up.
"Hey, Cin, it's Lou. I need a favor. A big favor."
There was a long eye-rubbing and sitting-up pause. "How big?"
"Really, really big." I explained what I needed.
"Ohhh... kay," she said at last. "But you'll need to have it notarized."
I swallowed. "I'll take care of that. You just bring the form as soon as you can."
Steve caught something in my face as I ended the call. "What's wrong?"
I explained the situation. "And I do know a notary..."
"You remember Mara?"
Mara was the one ex I wasn't on good terms with. We'd stayed together longer than any of my other relationships, but when we broke up... it was Bad with a capital B and that rhymes with T and that stands for Traumatic. But even after all that, I knew she still respected me. And I still trusted her.
Amazingly, her number was still in my phone.
"Pick up the phone, Mara, it's Lou." I repeated that over and over as Mara's voice mail message played itself out. I kept repeating it after the beep. I knew she kept her phone machine next to her bed. At least, she had when we'd been dating.
Please be home, I thought. Please please please...
"Lou? Lou, you ham-handed bulldagger, do you know what the fuck time it is?"
"I know what time it is, Mara. Listen, I need something notarized and I need it right away. As in now, this minute. It's really, really important."
A long pause. "This had better be good."
"It's a domestic partnership certificate." I swallowed. "For me."
She literally laughed out loud. "For Ms. Never-Gonna-Date-Again? Who's the unlucky bride?"
"You'll have to come here if you want to find out."
Another pause, then: "All right, where's 'here'?"
I grinned into the phone. Mara never could resist a mystery.
Cindy showed up half an hour later, with the windows brightening and the city beginning to rouse itself around us. Even in sweats, with her hair all mussed, she was still perky. I've never known how she manages it.
"Cindy," I said after helping her up the steps, "this is Naïda."
"Whoa," she said.
While Cindy was still goggling, Mara arrived, in full lawyer drag complete with makeup and heels. "I have got to see the woman who..."
She never finished that sentence. It was a while before she finished any of her sentences, actually. First time I'd ever seen her speechless.
We'd have to swear them both to secrecy, of course. But the life of the city depended on this.
"Okay," Cindy said after she'd calmed down a little. "Here's the form. You both need to show photo ID with proof of age."
I hauled out my driver's license. For Naïda we used the house's address, gave 4/1/50 as the date of birth, and made up a driver's license number.
"You know I could lose my commission for notarizing a false document," Mara said as she crimped the form with her notary public's seal.
"If it comes to that," I said, "we'll testify before the Secretary of State that you did it to save the city from destruction by earthquake."
"Yeah, that'll help." She slipped the seal back into its leather case. Then she stood, hands on hips, and regarded Naïda seriously for a moment. "Listen," she said to the undine, "are you sure you want to go through with this? Lou here hasn't ever made a long-term relationship work. She's great with her hands, but she isn't willing to risk her heart."
"This time it's different," I protested. But deep down inside I wondered if I was only fooling myself. I'd been infatuated before...
Then Naïda snuggled up next to me, her warm heavy arm flowing over my shoulders. "I have been alone for too many summers and too many winters," she said. "I have been ensnared, and I have been deceived, and I have been abandoned, but I know that I can trust this Lou and that she will never let me go. My heart yearns for her as the tides follow the moon."
I turned and took Naïda in my arms. I had no words.
Steve cleared his throat and pointed out the window. The job site was beginning to stir. I nodded and took Naïda over to where Cindy stood, while Steve and the others prepared the pentacle again.
"Okay," said Cindy, "I will now sign the form. Then you'll be all official." She smiled at me. "I'm so happy for you."
I swallowed. We hadn't told Cindy or Mara about the possible consequences. In sixty seconds I'd be married... or dead.
She signed the form.
Immediately I felt the forces of the other world welling up around the two of us. They swirled and coalesced like a waterfall of light, like a whirlpool of gravity, spinning ever closer, ever tighter.
I looked into Naïda's eyes.
And then came the change.
Suddenly I flowed, I surged, I rolled like the tide. I smelled salt and tasted pure water. My vision shimmered.
Cindy gasped. I turned toward her and felt the currents swirling in my chest.
My coverall felt funny. It slipped away, falling down my body, passing right through my limbs to land in a soggy puddle on the linoleum. A moment later the water ran out of the coverall and back up my legs. My shimmering, transparent legs.
"I can feel... myself," I said, feeling the air gurgle past my lips. The words were inadequate, but they were all I had to express the joy that overflowed my heart. After a lifetime of working with water spirits, sensing their moods and flows, I had become one myself. I understood my own heart now, in a way I'd never been able to before. And I knew that I loved Naïda with every drop of it.
Naïda too felt my heart's flow, as I'd always been able to feel hers. "Oh, my love," she said, and took me in her arms.
We flowed together, becoming a single fluid entity, bonded and encompassed and powered by the strength of our mutual love. Together we were more than strong enough. More than strong enough for anything.
Outside the window, the excavator's diesel engine coughed to life.
"You'd better get going," we said to Steve and the rest, "before they tear this house down around your ears. Thanks for everything."
And then we dove into the center of the pentacle, and down the drain.
We emerged at the Salmon Street Springs, just beginning its daily show. The central jet streamed into the air and we sailed with it, high above the joggers and the bicyclists and the early commuters.
Our people, to protect and nurture forever.
We laughed and danced together atop the fountain's sparkling waters.
David D. Levine has sold over 40 science fiction and fantasy stories to all the major markets, including Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy. He's won a Hugo Award, been nominated for the Nebula, and won or been shortlisted for many other awards as well as appearing in numerous Year's Best anthologies and the revised version of Wild Cards Volume I. His web page is at http://www.daviddlevine.com/.
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