When the lake gets low, you can see the heads of the swimming gods. They’re made of some white stone that does not stain or erode and repels the creeping green that covers everything else. It’s lucky to touch them, lay your cheek against their cool brow; you can kiss their lips if you’re daring. People go a lot of different ways on whether that’s wise, and what will follow. When the lake gets very low, and waves are lapping at their breasts, if you prowl the shore and the waterways that lead to town, you’ll find the giants.
The water only gets that low when they’re opening gates for some reason. Cool and rain or warm and sun are always here. Water rises and they let it out when it’s too high. They also open the gates for certain days of the year regardless of the water level. Days when you can swim. We never mind chilly water. We sing like peep frogs.
Today is a swimming day. The wind is cool off the lake, pushing idly at the chimes in all the eaves. Little mist snakes rise off the still and glassy water. Banners slow-clap against the stone retaining walls. There are boats moored by the heads of the gods, kids diving from the divine crowns. They will be chased off soon enough, find a new god to dive from, repeat the process. It’s meant to be blasphemous, but everyone does it, and the gods don’t seem to mind.
Elly and I are not swimming. This is fine to me; I don’t like swimming on swimming days. Swimming days remind everyone of my body, and I don’t want them to be reminded. It’s not really the people who taunt or challenge. It’s the ones who don’t. It’s also the ones who do. We’re going into the swamp, the waterways, where the freshwater crabs and the frogs and the marsh birds don’t care how mismatched I was made. We’re going to the giants. Elly’s seen a thing around them, and she won’t tell me what.
The giants are green. Poison copper green like the plates on the chimneys, like the armour sewn on the robes of the folks who sit around in the barges yelling at you when you go to kiss the gods out on the lake (it wouldn’t be lucky if it was easy). In our home, there are so many different greens; we make up words for them—verid, esmer, others. Our world is pinks and greens; the pinks are in the clouds, in the flowers, in the buds that keep coming on the seasonal trees; they make leaves and lose them as new buds push them out. We brought cherry trees when we came to this place. They were meant to fruit, but they never have.
The giants. No, Elly and I, we’re in my boat and gliding past their faces. I look at the strain frozen there. They were old; men, women, five times our height, flesh hard as hardwood, feet plunging in the mud beneath the water. They sank, they mired, then they hardened and slowed. The giants are different from the gods, unmistakable, and it’s bad to touch them. They are still alive, and their hatreds circle their torpid flesh like black flies. Their dreams stain the water from below, reaching for the surface like their stiffened arms. You squint, and you’ll see.
No, Elly and I—Elly, mostly, and Elly is not taking care to pick a good path. My pole brushes the smooth of giant clavicle, and I wince. Elly is leaning over the bow, peering into the murk, and the bubbles are rising all around us, the peep frogs singing in the shadows. The cypresses lace their branches like fingers ready to crack their knuckles. This is not a good place.
It’s not doing me any good to ask Elly how she found what she found, why she was here in the first place. There’s no reason to come where we’ve come, and I am a skeptical friend. I am a voice of reason. I’ve had my one extravagance, and to pay for it, I am cautious, conservative. I have to be. Elly’s answers are vague. They block and elide and turn aside, and there’s no point. I give it up. Elly needs a strong back to pole the boat while she searches; affirmation, not advice.
This I owe her, for all she steps up to defend me. A giant with water lilies all in his beard glares at me. One arm arches out of the water like the stroke of a swimmer.
Elly’s hair catches, in the damp, and for a moment, on those petrified beard locks. She doesn’t notice, and she doesn’t notice me cringe. There are boulders here, turned up from when the giants could march fast enough to see them coming. We had a gun back then that drew down chunks of iron that orbit the planet to smash them. It was as useful in defending us from the giants as a sledgehammer is for killing fleas. We’ve since covered it in gold leaf, pennants and copper bells. Its muzzle is pointed right where we are going.
Elly, what did you see? She won’t say, just that she didn’t really see it. She wasn’t expecting to, not really, not until we were out in the waterways. But she can feel it. I can feel something, but it might just be from Elly. Something stains the water, here. Almost makes it light? I narrow my eyes and use the pole to guide my sight.
Long lilies block most of Elly’s sight, and in the end, it’s not her who finds them, it’s me. I put the pole down and stir up a soft cry that rides a violent gout of bubbles to the surface. Then they are all aglow.
This is when Elly tells me about the dream of them, down there.
Elly is all aglow, but this is different. She’s proud, and they are shedding light, red and low like the belly of a banked fire. Between the lily pads, I can see the torsos, the thighs of the giants, bathed in mellow red light. Clustered around them are people. Bodies all alight, they’re somehow visible through the murky water; visible like the water was cleaner and clearer than even the lake ever gets. I have to ask these questions of Elly again. My boat comes to rest against the bicep of a coppery giant crone. Her skin leaves a green stain on the hull. Technically, it’s an esmer. It’s the undertones.
One of them was for me, she says, waiting for me, was me. Elly, you are not making sense. She says she’s dreamed me down there, in the water, a girl, golden eyed, aglow.
Elly, you have no idea if that is true or possible. She spreads her hands out over the water, which is lit in the depths by the bodies like submerged lanterns. Here they are, but I don’t believe her when she tells me she’s never seen them before with her eyes. A frog passes, black as a shadow against red-lit skin.
Elly, you are besotted. They are all curled up, tight balls of human shape, on their sides. They are young, not children; they are our age, and that scares me. Their arms and thighs conceal them, but they are naked.
I am never concealed, even fully clothed. I am always a conversation, an explanation, a place for judgment. Elly looks at me and I know she is going to say something I’m going to need to forget. She tries, bless her. I see the words form, I see her discard them. She tells me, if the rest of what she saw was correct, I could have a body that was right for me. The long wait gives me time to disguise my face. This is why she brought me.
Elly is breathing, preparing for a dive. Her eyes are fixed on the lights below, and I am forbidding her, no you cannot do this.
They are giant spawn, obviously. The giants breed like peep frogs in the water, and these are the tadpoles waiting in their eggs to hatch and rise up to kill us. Must be. No one knows if or how they breed, but here’s proof they do. We will need the militia, depth charges…
It’s a curse. Those old, curdled dreams in the murk. We’re surrounded by the bodies of giants, thigh deep in swamp bottom, hating, trying, still, with bodies that move as slow as pitch on a scabby tree to reach town and tear it up. Each of those is a slumbering nightmare, a resentment, a spite, and touching one of them will burn out our spirits faster than a cheap candle.
It’s an invasion. They’ll slip into us and slip into town, and who knows what they’ll get up to, who they’ll hurt, looking like us. Your body, my wrong body, but my wrong body, Elly. I didn’t arrive in the wrong place like a misaddressed letter.
Elly is stripped to the seal-slick undergarment we wear to dive in water like this, the undergarment that I just wear to wear. I can beg, and I do, but I know that I can either let her or fight her, and let her dive anyway with maybe a bruise on her ribs, and I wouldn’t dare fight her. She knows this, and I realize, now, that’s why she took me. I won’t fight. I can’t; it would put me out of bounds, undo everything.
Elly, there are crocodiles. (I hope one takes you.)
It’s a deep dive for Elly. Not for me, and there’s some satisfaction. Her body is murky, a shadow passing over the little red stars. They’re silent, sleeping. She’s chosen one, and though I can see the features clearly, I cannot read them for a sex. They are all concealed, and I am jealous. Elly secures the rope around her chosen’s waist and tugs. I don’t haul like she wants me to, but neither do I drop the line.
Elly comes up gasping, claws her way into the boat and looks at me. I am stuck. The line is here, but I am not pulling, just staring at the black bisecting the middle of the red figure in the water. Maybe Elly sees me now, but she’s good at looking like that when she doesn’t. It’s hard to know. She takes the line. So do I. The figure comes free of nothing that I can see in the water and begins to float upwards to us.
The figure’s hair is no length. I look away as the body gets close. I reach out blindly as it breaches the surface, take hold of a calf, an ankle. Feverish warm. My boat lists. We lean against it, lift and pull. My eyes are closed. Below, I feel another one turn her face toward mine, but her eyes are also closed.
In the dark, I hear a gasp for air, deep and long and shrill. I open my eyes. The figure is mostly blocked by Elly, eyes open, black, ringed in gold, notched like a frog. Hand warding or waving, and the first red bodies bobbing, likewise to the surface.
Story copyright © 2016 by Erik Amundsen
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Soren James
Erik Amundsen is a medium monstrous humanoid, always chaotic evil. His work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Not One of Us.
Soren James (artwork) is a writer and visual artist who recreates himself on a daily basis from the materials at his disposal, and will continue to do so in an upbeat manner until one day he will sumptuously throw his drained materials aside and resume stillness without asking why.