A young maiden with a secret: inside her chest, beneath her lace blouse, her rouged skin, and ribcage like a lobster trap, a carp lay flapping. At night it thumped against her sternum, keeping her awake. It bullied her, beating air out of her lungs, warning her against many men who she encountered and thought of in the night. On the occasion she brought a lover to her bed, eventually their chests would press together, and he would feel it. Something clammy, a slapping fish. Lovers left her one by one, feeling uneasy, unable to say exactly what had turned them off, other than that it seemed like something cold lay beneath the maiden’s breasts. At the carp’s urging she’d soak in the bathtub, where she would cry and wonder how she’d ever kill it.
The carp thrived on water, so she tried to dehydrate herself. Still, red tides of blood would rescue the carp, which still would have swum in the dried-up puddle of her dead body, if it could. She consumed massive amounts of special algae and root vegetables known to be toxic to fish. Still, it flipped and squirmed, pushing the poison back up out of her body. She looked for fishermen everywhere she went, soliciting hooks. Even when she found them, the carp would not bite. One day, the carp murmured, I am your mother. Sure she had gone mad, the young maiden ran to the nearest lake, where she threw herself into the water. You are lucky I did not lock you up in any tower other than your own body, the carp screamed. The young maiden dove deep into the lake, pulling water into her lungs, forcing her body further and further down into the darkness.
Near the muddy tar of the lake bottom, her body went limp and her blood took on so much water that the fish broke from its cage and swam freely through her corpse. As it pushed up into the maiden’s throat it propelled her body forward, skimming the lake scum. The carp grew and shapeshifted, occupying her body and moving it at its will. A ghoulish siren transformed, animated by the carp that now claimed the lake as its own domain, haunting the forests of muskgrass, disrupting algal blooms, and knocking frogs from their perches.
In spite of the schools of small fish it terrorized, within weeks, the carp quickly grew restless. The lake was too quiet. The maiden’s body was a powerful, yet boring vessel. At any sign of movement the carp would jump, and tear a smaller fish to pieces. Early one morning a sudden plop on the surface: a shiny yellow creature, a snake perhaps. The carp gawped, opening the maiden’s mouth and sunk its flesh into a cleverly disguised hook. In shock, it froze, and was soon reeled up and wrangled from the maiden’s body, which surfaced a few moments later, gasping for breath. The fisherman, forgetting about his catch, dropped the carp onto the sand, where it unsuccessfully writhed for water. The fisherman pulled the maiden from the water and took her to his cottage, where he fed and clothed her, and eventually asked her to live with him as his wife, an offer she happily accepted.
Still every evening, just as before, she could not sleep. She could not breathe because she did not know how to fill all the space inside her chest. She often thought of the carp which they had left to rot on the loamy lakeside sand. The hollow chamber inside her chest ached and seemed to expand under her heightened awareness of it. Sometimes she thought she heard the carp’s nagging, felt its disapproving twitch within her frame, but when she put her hands to her chest, it felt vast and quiet, like open ocean. As gray and empty as a broken-down lighthouse, she’d stand watching her husband by the lake. At night she would not let him touch her chest or rub her back, although he dearly longed to. If he ever woke to find her uncovered, he’d pull the covers up to her neck, just like he’d swaddled her in wool the day he’d rescued her. After he’d fallen back asleep, she’d pull them off again, re-exposing her skin to the cold.
In dreams the carp urged her to rescue its skeleton. Provide me a home as fine as the one I gave you, it said. Unable to refuse the voice anymore, the maiden quietly ran to search for the carp’s bones in the moonlight. She thrashed through the sand, digging, and finally found them glistening in the grass, as if someone had cleaned and polished them for her. The maiden cradled them to her empty chest, squeezing the bones sharply against her flesh. Her husband found her like that later, lying in the grass with bones shoved in her mouth, some piercing her breasts like tiny spears, and a fish skull nestled wetly in her throat.
Ariel Kusby is a writer and bookseller based in Portland, Oregon. She currently works in the Rose and Orange rooms at Powell’s City of Books, where she pays special attention to children’s books about witches, odd cookbooks, and gnome gardening guides.You can check out her writing at www.arielkusby.com.