There was a youth, who had lived for twenty summers, and he passed by a pool, a pool so still and clear that when he caught his own reflection on its surface, he was startled.
He was drawn.
It was not the first time he had ever seen his reflection. But something was different about the reflection in this pool. The face he spied upon its surface was familiar, for it was after all his own face. But it was also, if he would dare to admit it to himself, a more beautiful face. The reflection’s smile shimmered with the sunlight that struck the pool. The reflection’s face was clear and translucent.
He thought perhaps that it was some special quality possessed by water that affected his reflection so. For when he had stared into other pools, he did not see what he saw when he stared into that particular pool.
So he returned, day after day, to spend hours upon hours gazing at himself.
One day, he had an enticing thought. Then he chastised himself and told himself it was a silly and foolish thought. He shook his head as if shaking off the thought, but it was a sticky thought. It would not be forgotten.
And so, he leaned down closer to his reflection, closer and closer, until his lips touched the surface of the water, and the lips of his reflection.
He felt real lips touching his own. Startled, he recoiled. He opened his eyes wide, and he saw, for the first time, another face gazing up at him from under his reflection. A beautiful face, making the same expression of surprise he had on his face.
Suddenly all the terrifying tales told to him in childhood flooded his memory. The only stories he had heard of folk living under the waters were frightening ones, as was natural, for such tales were meant to keep children away from the water so they would not drown. He remembered a rhyme that his grandmother taught him once.
Beware, beware, beware
Your senses you must keep
Should you wander under there
Where they linger in the deep
He feared that the face beneath his reflection was some kind of water witch, and that she meant to enchant him so that he might do her bidding. She had almost captured him! No doubt it was she who had enchanted his reflection to appear so ethereally beautiful.
So the youth wisely stayed away from the pool. He even tried to warn his friends, but when one of them asked how it was he came to know there was a witch in that pool, the youth was loathe to share the tale. He said nothing more, and only shuddered at the thought of kissing a witch.
Day after day passed without the youth visiting the pool. But he did not forget it as he had hoped. A longing bloomed within him, and he grew heartsick thinking about the reflection, or perhaps he was growing heartsick thinking about the face beneath his reflection. Perhaps the witch had captured him after all.
Or perhaps, she was not a witch at all. Perhaps she was an innocent youth like himself. A water nymph. A mermaid.
Not a witch at all.
Thus is was, as more and more days passed away from the pool, away from his mesmerizing reflection, that the youth convinced himself that he must return. For he had not left behind a witch who meant him harm, but a maiden, just a curious maiden, whose beauty might equal his own.
So he fulfilled his longing, and he returned to the pool to gaze at his reflection. He leaned closer and he drew farther back, and this time, he saw only his own face. He called out gently, wondering if a water-dweller could hear underwater the words his spoke in the air.
But soon, he forgot about witches and maidens and mermaids. The true enchantment was his own face. The longer he gazed at his reflection, the more he wished to keep gazing.
This day, he stayed long past the times he had stayed before. He felt a distant pang of hunger, but ignored it. His eyelids began to droop, but he rubbed them to refresh them.
He caught movement beneath the water as the sun began to sink in the sky. He was not certain if he was seeing things because his eyes wanted to sleep, or because there was something to see.
Again, he dared to lean down, closer to the water, with his eyes open wide. He peered beneath the surface of the water, beneath his own reflection.
And he saw her.
The face beneath his reflection was staring back up at him. As the sky darkened, he saw her ever more clearly. He brought his hand to his mouth in shock, and she did the same thing. He frowned, and she frowned.
She was not the reflection of his face and his form. But she did seem to reflect his movements and his expressions.
He signaled to this “nymph of the pool.” He beckoned. And as he beckoned, so did she. He reached slowly into the water, expecting to meet her hand with his, just as he had met her lips with his. His intent was to pull her up above the water’s surface.
Instead, he was pulled down below it.
The youth did not drown. He floated beneath the water, quite surprised that he was face to face with a most beautiful mermaid. Her hair was so long, so voluminous that her locks drifted around him like waterweeds. Her eyes were like pools within pools, dark and alluring. Her skin was covered in delicate glittering scales. And she was smiling at him. Her mouth was moving, and he thought he understood. He reached for her.
And just then he was yanked out of the water.
Splashing and thrashing, the youth realized that the sky was dark. He looked about and saw the faces of the strangers.
They told him that they had been passing by, when they saw him fall into the pool. They thought he did it on purpose to have a cool swim, but he was down there so long, they worried, and fetched him.
The youth turned back to the surface of the pool. But now he saw nothing.
Shaken he went home, but he returned the next day.
He gazed into the pool, as he had done many, many times before. He smiled at his reflection. And his reflection smiled back, smiled back a dazzling smile. The youth caught his breath.
He peered beneath his reflection, but this time, he saw nothing, nothing but his own face.
He let himself be mesmerized by it. And he gazed and he gazed.
And just as he had the day before, he began to long for more. As the sun began to sink in the sky, and the view upon the pool’s surface began to dim, the youth brought forth a lantern and set it beside the pool.
As quickly as he could, he broke his gaze from the pool long enough to glance around himself to make sure that no one else was about.
Then he peered into the water, beneath his reflection, and still he saw no other face but his own.
“It is only me,” he said. “There is no nymph.”
He focused his gaze at his reflection again and saw a satisfied smile upon the reflection’s lips.
His heart quickened.
Beware, beware, beware…
A faraway voice sang a familiar rhyme, but the rhyme was unpleasant, and the youth was loathe to be distracted from his gazing.
He let the voice drift away.
He leaned over the pool and was pleased to find that even under a moonless night sky, he could still see his reflection, for the lantern light was strong.
Still, no lantern’s light could equal the light of the sun. The youth had to bring the light closer and closer to the water’s edge. And he had to lean closer and closer to the reflection to see the details he could see in daylight, the curl of each eyelash, the dimple in each cheek, and that satisfied smile.
Suddenly he caught movement beneath his reflection. He saw a face beneath his own, under the water, a face whose eyes were wide, whose mouth was open, and gaping.
The youth gasped and drew back.
For he saw not just a face, but hands, palms with webbed fingers reaching up to the surface.
He had thrown his own hands out to the sides in his surprise.
As he did, he knocked the lantern over and the lamp oil caught flame. The oil spilled into the water, still aflame.
The youth cried out.
But there was no one about to help.
He backed away, and watched, helpless, as his reflection was doused in flame.
The next morning, the youth woke and found himself lying near the pool. He rubbed his sticky eyes against the dawning sky, and he remembered watching the flames burn upon the surface of the pool. He had vowed to stay until they burned away, so he could check upon his reflection. But he was tired from gazing all day. And he had fallen asleep.
The lantern oil was spent now. Its odor lingered in the air, but it was spent. And the youth crawled toward the pool, clutching his chest with one hand, taking shallow breaths.
Although it was foolish to believe that his reflection would be marred by the fire, he feared it would be. For this reflection was different from all others. He hoped against hope that he would still see the dazzling smile, the charming curls upon his head, the smooth sweep of his jaw.
As he reached the pool’s edge, he closed his eyes. He practiced patience as the sky began to lighten with the rising of the sun. When he felt it was sufficiently bright, he opened his eyes, and he dared to look upon the surface of the water.
And there it was. His reflection. The eyes were wide with apprehension, but they softened as his gaze fell upon his reflection. His face was smudged with dirt, but this he wiped away, and in response, the skin of his reflection gleamed translucently.
Suddenly the reflection grew distorted, and the youth gasped. His brow creased. But as he felt a warm dripping upon his cheek, he realized that he was seeing his reflection through tears. He wiped them away, and he leaned over the pool.
His reflection beamed at him as the rays of dawn struck the water. The smile was a dazzling one. Relieved and comforted, the youth laughed out loud. And his handsome reflection laughed along with him. The youth reached out as he would to clasp arms with a friend, or to grasp hands with a lover. In the moment, he was uncertain which gesture he would make. He only reached freely and happily. And he was still laughing. But his reflection’s face was now still, smiling a satisfied smile.
The youth fell toward the water’s surface.
But he never fell beneath it. He found himself floating at the surface, unable to move. He was fixed in place for he was anchored by the figure that stood above him. The figure looked like him and when the figure moved, he moved, but not as he had moved before. For the youth now had only two dimensions in which he could stretch. The figure knelt, and the youth hoped that the figure would come closer, so they could correct the mistake he had just made. He had not meant to fall onto the water.
But the figure did not come closer. The figure reached out a hand, and the youth felt his own hand stretching along the surface of the water in response. He felt something in his hand, something hard and round but with a rough surface. A stone. The figure released the stone and so the youth released the stone. As it struck the surface of the water, the youth felt himself ripple and tear and stretch in every direction upon the water’s surface. The disruption felt something like pain, but it was not pain, for he had no body with which to feel pain.
As the water’s surface calmed and stilled, the youth was able to gather himself, but only in the shadows. All day he lingered, begging, pleading for the figure to return. He had no voice, only his thoughts with which to beg. He wept, but he no longer had tears, only his thoughts with which to weep. He did not have eyes to see, but he perceived with some sense that was much like sight. For as the day passed, he perceived that people came to the pool, to drink, and to gaze at their reflections as he once had. He could not go to them for help, for he did not look like them. He could only show himself to one person. And the youth feared that one person would never again show his face to that pool.
Many were the rhymes about the dangers that lingered under the surface of the waters. But none had he heard about the dangers that floated upon the surface. Perhaps there would be now, if anyone happened to be wandering by when he fell, if any had seen.
That evening, as the sun sank and the sky darkened, the youth saw someone approach, not from above, but from below.
He did not have eyes to see, but he sensed her voluminous hair floating all around him like waterweeds. And he sensed her skin covered in fine glittering scales. And he sensed her eyes, deep and wise, gazing at him with kindness and sorrow.
“Alas,” she said. “I tried to warn you. But you could never quite see me past your own reflection.”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel
2 thoughts on “They Linger in the Deep”
This is so beautifully told. Bravo 👏🏾
Thank you, kindly! I’m happy you enjoyed my twist on a classic myth.