Nikos groaned from the exertion of climbing the steep incline. He had spied the thin, winding dirt track while walking his usual route through the foothills of the Ziria Mountain Range and now, curious, he followed the path as it snaked its way up a precipitous, rocky hill before descending into a darkened valley. Dog-tired, he rested on the brow of the hill and drained the last of the tepid water from his drinking flask. The gloom of the valley was inviting in the fierce afternoon heat and made even more so by the refreshing sound of running water, from what he imagined to be an icy, mountain stream.
He had promised his wife, Daphne, he would be back before dinner, but after fourteen years of marriage she knew Nikos was easily distracted on his Sunday excursions and it was not uncommon for him to be late. It would be at least two hours before he made it back to the car and then another thirty minutes before he would arrive home. The thought of spending that time hot and thirsty was not appealing in the least.
Shouldering his pack, his drinking flask still in his hand, he followed the track down the hill and into the shaded valley. He trusted in the path now lined with ferns and cascading willows instead of the mean shrubs that clung stubbornly to life on the surrounding hills and mountainsides. The path was true, coming to an end at a bubbling stream in which floated a naked woman, her moon-white skin luminous in the late afternoon sun. Her arms were outstretched and her hands turned up in supplication. Nikos stopped mid stride, dumbfounded. He licked his dry lips and continued to stare; any concerns he may have had for the woman’s modesty were forgotten in his sudden shock and the woman’s extraordinary beauty.
She was watching him, her ice-blue eyes the same color as the stream, expressionless, her lithe body relaxed. He could see her lips moving, the sonance of a babbling brook resounding from them. He could make out words in the sound now but he could not understand them. Unusually long, white hair floated around her, touching the sides of the stream, which was easily several feet across. “My god,” he gasped, lowering himself slowly down on to a mossy boulder, still staring at the woman, mouth agape and eyes wide.
A stem of fluorescent green water weed was tangled in the woman’s hair; another had beached itself on her flat stomach, its long stem trailing down to a patch of pubic hair that shimmered like gold under the clear water. The sight brought a flood of heat to Nikos’s face and loins.
A coy smile formed on the woman’s lips as if she knew his desire. “Hello,” she said. Her voice resonated, a cascading sound wave like the note of a harp.
“Come,” she said.
Nikos did not hesitate. He hurriedly undressed, flinging his clothes on to the bough of a willow, and splashed eagerly into the water. The woman rose to greet him, her long hair clinging to the back of her legs, the water weed still entangled in it.
The vision wrapped her arms around his neck. Nikos could feel her hard nipples pressed against his chest. “What is your name?” Nikos asked, suddenly feeling shy.
“I am the stream,” the woman murmured, her ice-blue eyes sparkling. She bit at his lip. He responded hungrily, his tongue pushing between her teeth and finding hers, the organs tussling as she forced Nikos down into the shallows of the water. Reaching between his legs she guided him inside her, thrusting down upon him, her thighs slapping the water, creating waves that rippled to the stream’s banks. Faster and faster she moved until they both cried out at once and the woman collapsed panting upon Nikos. They lay there quietly, bodies entwined, listening to each other’s breath. “I must go,” Nikos said in the fading light. “It’s late, I need to get home.”
“As you wish,” she said, sinking back into the water.
“Are you coming?” Nikos said, gathering his clothes and tugging them on. The woman did not answer. She began to chant, arms outstretched, hands upturned in supplication. Nikos did not understand the words; they were strange to him, ancient. Her body began to emit a strange glow as she sank below the water. He could still see her glowing silhouette as it began to dissipate and break into tiny pinpricks of light that faded like sparks from a fire.
Nikos made it home in half the time, desperate to return to familiarity, to be far away from the strangeness of the day. His wife had been waiting at the front door. “You’re so late, I was getting a little worried.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, kissing her. “I lost track of time.” His wife had kept his meal warm for him. His young daughter and two sons clamoured around him but he paid them little heed. He was thinking of the dark valley and the beautiful woman from the stream.
The next morning, when he awoke in bed beside his sleeping wife, he could hear the soft murmur of flowing water, the sound the woman had made with her sweet lips. Nikos lay there quietly recalling the events of the previous day. He remembered the intense heat and his exhaustion and thirst. Had he become so severely dehydrated and delirious that he imagined the woman inviting him into the cool water? Were his ears injured when he plunged into the stream to join this figment in frenzied lovemaking? Nikos sighed and forced himself into his daily routine, but during that week the woman never left his mind, nor did the murmuring leave his ears. The following Sunday, Nikos returned to the mountains. It was late afternoon when he reached the dirt track leading up the hill. The desire to see the woman was overwhelming; her lips whispered an enchanting melody into the gentle murmuring of water in his ears. He hurried up the hill and into the gloom of the valley.
The woman was floating naked in the stream. He waded into the water fully clothed. She laughed at him. “I thought you were a dream,” he said, staring down at her, revelling in her beauty, her raw sexuality. The urge to embrace her consumed him but he held back, just for a moment. She was too perfect, flawless. “What are you?” he asked.
“I am water, I am this stream that runs from the mountain to the sea, a daughter of Tethys.”
A naiad. He recalled the warnings of his grandmother about naiads. As a young boy living in a town in the Ziria Mountains, he had pointed out to his grandmother a man staggering down the main street, a dazed look in his eyes.
“What is wrong with him, Papou?” Nikos had asked.
“He is naiad-struck, a besotted fool.”
“What do you mean?”
“A water nymph has cast a spell on him. Unless he breaks the spell or surrenders to her he will waste away to nothing.”
“Have you cast a spell on me,” Nikos said to the woman in the stream.
“If love is a spell,” the naiad said demurely, helping Nikos out of his clothes. He tried to guide her to the mossy bank but she stopped at the water’s edge, unwilling to go farther. They lay in the shallow water and made love. When they both tired, she moved back into the deep of the stream and floated, the strange chanting upon her lips until she vanished beneath the water in a shower of light.
The naiad did not leave Nikos’s thoughts that week. He moved as if in a dream; images of her beauty, her sensuality crowded his mind, the sound of the stream whispered in his ears. He told his wife that he was ill and his family fussed over him, showering him with love and sympathy. He went to work, eager to find a distraction, but appeared stupefied and was sent home. But he didn’t go home; he drove to the Mountains of Ziria.
The watery whispers grew louder, more urgent, excited as he walked along the familiar dirt track to the dark valley. Nikos increased his pace, sweat running freely from his brow. He paused to mop his face and from his handkerchief fluttered a paper. His daughter had handed him a picture that morning before he left for work, and he had stuffed it in his pocket without a second glance. He unfolded it; it was a picture of him carrying his daughter upon his back as they walked through the mountains under a gloaming sun. He had taken her there as a young child. It had been a day of adventure, stories, and magic. A day she evidently treasured. Nikos was filled with shame. He recalled further the conversation with his grandmother about the naiad-struck man.
“But how do you break the spell of a naiad, Papou?’
“You take her water away from her, of course.”
Turning from the path before it reached the stream, he walked parallel to it as it wound through the valley to the mountains. Through the trees he caught glimpses of the naiad shadowing him from the stream. Her whispers had grown to a yell, a watery roaring in his ears. He had ignored her, and his betrayal had angered her. It was late in the evening when he reached the foot of the mountains. The stream ended at a cliff face, the moonlight shining on the water pouring through a fissure in the rock. The naiad was waiting for him at the beginning of the stream. Nikos ignored her and climbed the cliff face and began to move rocks and rubble to block the fissure.
“Why are you doing this?” she called up to him.
“I cannot be with you and I know you’ll never let me go.”
“I can make you the stream, we will be one.”
Nikos was panting from the effort of maneuvering the heavier rocks into position. He turned and looked down at her. “I have a family; it is all I need.”
“I can show you pleasures you will never know as just a man.” He did not reply but turned away and continued to strain against the face of a massive boulder.
She danced below him as he wedged in stones to secure the rocks blocking the fissure, her lithe body twirling in the moonlight, the whisperings no longer shrill and urgent but seductive, a warm breath in his ear beckoning him to stop fussing with silly rocks and come down to her. As the first rays of sunshine found their way through the dense canopy of trees in the valley, Nikos realized he was alone. The naiad had returned to their first meeting place, where the stream was deep and the water would pool until the summer heat dried it up. His work was complete. The fissure was sealed and the stream would receive no more water unless it rained, and that was unlikely at this time of year.
He left the valley and returned to his family, his work, his life. The naiad’s gentle whispering continued, growing fainter each day until one morning he awoke and the sound was gone. A few months passed before he returned to the foothills. He followed the dirt track up the hill and down into the valley. The stream had dried up. In the dust where they had made love were the bones of many men; some of the bones were porous, others smooth like river pebbles. Each man had given his life to the naiad in the stream.
Simon McHardy is an Australian archivist and historian. He has published numerous fantasy and horror short stories which have appeared in such publications as Jitter, Kzine, Devolution Z, Five on the Fifth, and 9Tales Told in the Dark. He is currently working on a short story compendium which will be completed in 2018.
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Photo by Jérôme Prax