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Better Be the Whiting's Sister

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Tuuri strained to push her boat into the water, and its keel scraped over the coarse sand with a terrible noise that probably carried all the way to the houses above. Tuuri pushed harder. Kneeling on the frame, her short leg barely reached the ground, until her foot caught on a large rock, and with the new leverage the boat slid out onto the still water of Lake Saimaa.

The force of the push pitched Tuuri forward. She rolled down into the boat with a hollow thump that must have sent ripples all around and could almost imagine the fish darting to safety from under her. Pushing her braids out of her face, Tuuri sat up, thinking of the prayers to Vellamo that Onni had taught her - not the one asking for perch, but the one to apologize for noise on her waters.

Her excitement and the fluttery feelings in her tummy made it hard to concentrate, but Tuuri bit her lip behind her mask and thought the prayer hard, then held her breath and waited.

The boat bobbed uselessly for a moment, and nothing happened. That was good - or at least it wasn't bad. Good enough to give her courage to start rowing, so Tuuri scrambled onto the center seat and grabbed the oars. They were heavy and a little difficult to handle, but she knew how to - her grandmother had insisted that all her family do, if they ever needed to escape from their island in case of an attack.

In the regular splash, even though her shoulders ached after a few strokes, the island shore and the landing spot for the boats soon became a distant thing. Slivers of morning mist slipped between Tuuri and the village, clinging to the hillside, that was even better. It'd mask her escape from the lookouts who'd have changed shifts by now, the nightwatch heading to bed and the day guard out onto the palisades. This wasn't a proper escape, though. This was exploration, and she needed to hurry before anybody else noticed her absence and the missing boat, and put both things together - especially after Onni had ratted her out for her idea of exploring another island together to their parents, only a few weeks ago.

Well then, she'd go alone. This'd teach him, she thought with grim satisfaction. She hoped he'd cry when he found out she'd left. There'd be hell to pay for her when she came back, but it couldn't be worse than Onni breathing down her neck all the time the way he already was doing. One day of freedom, and she'd make it worth whatever followed.

For a while, the only sounds were the quiet noises of the lake and the rhythm of her rowing, until answering splashes on the lake gave Tuuri pause. By then she was out of breath, and her mask didn't make breathing any easier; the air became hot and stuffy under it. At first she thought Onni must have found out and followed her, but no - he was a coward pisshead and wouldn't even go out on the lake with her, so he wouldn't go alone either, even if they let him.

Her Grandmother? Tuuri's heart beat quickly for a second - maybe she'd do what her friends all claimed she could, and sing Tuuri into a swamp, or change her into a frog or a worm or a snake with a runo. She'd be so angry! Tuuri ducked and squeezed her eyes shut, and waited for the inevitable hand on her shoulder.

None came. When she dared to look again, the water stretched empty between the labyrinth of islands, but something - something big that had already gone under the water again - had made ripples that only spun out slowly, already far enough from the central point outward that they barely still rocked the boat when they passed against the hull.

Tuuri swallowed. She knew that some beasts lived in the water. Seals, otters… what else? Could they jump, as mutated as they were? Perhaps it had been a bird, an eagle on the hunt, and it'd caught a fish, flying back into the cover of trees on the shore before she'd had a chance to see it, or a loon that'd gone diving? The sky, at any rate, was empty of birds, and just as blank as the water.

The boat spun in a slow half-circle, propelled by some invisible hand, or at least Tuuri couldn't help the feeling. Slowly, as the boat turned, her sight drifted to a cluster of rocks that didn't quite count as an island of its own, shining oddly iridescent in the morning sun.

The trail of ripples, almost entirely dissipated now, led that way. On the rocks, a group of women rested - Tuuri counted five - talking to each other and laughing, long hair rippling as they combed it, and every now and then one would slip into the water to swim, trailing a waving garment like foam or bubbles after her as she sped through the water with the grace of a strange fish.

Tuuri sat very still, but something tugged on her heart - she knew the stories, of course. There was no way to grow up in a family of three mages and not know the Kalevala and all the songs and stories by heart, but even so the battered book they'd all learned from had become one of Tuuri's most prized possessions after she'd begged it off Lalli. Oddly, it was the signature, in a neat, loopy script that Tuuri had painstakingly matched her own hand on, that flashed through her mind. Aino Hotakainen, it said, her own great-grandmother's name.

She was sure that great-grandmother Aino wasn't with the water maidens - she'd seen the old photos and knew that great-grandmother Aino hadn't drowned, but Tuuri could not help straining her sight for the women, silly as she felt - if Vellamo's maidens were bathing here, then perhaps that story was true, too? The very first Aino?

A flutter of excitement ran through her, and Tuuri leaned forward, her hands gripping the frame of the boat. One of the women caught Tuuri's eye, waved her fingers, and slipped beneath the surface.

Boats like hers were made for fishermen hoisting full nets over the side and not tipping over, but Tuuri must have strained over too far to catch a glimpse of the woman shooting her way under the water. She tumbled, along with the boat, and a whirl and rush and veil of bubbles was all around her and she couldn't tell up from down and water pushed through the filters of her mask and into her mouth when she shrieked, and then hands were on her, steadying.

Tuuri's racing heart calmed. Long hair like silk floated before Tuuri's face, and she caught a glimpse of laughing eyes in the clear water, full lips, fingers pulling Tuuri's mask off and a mouth pressing down on hers to fill her lungs with breath, cold and sweet like water.

She suddenly wasn't afraid any longer.

Then her head pushed past the surface, and she felt herself being lifted. The capsized boat righted itself as if by magic, and with the water-maiden's help she scrambled back in. A pale hand, with the iridescent glint of fish scales, dappled like those of a salmon, on the webbing between its fingers dropped her mask into the boat as well, and when Tuuri sat up, the hand withdrew into the depths of the lake.

From below, laughter sounded as the water-maiden lifted her head above the surface, an arm's length from the boat and outside the reach of Tuuri's fingers, her eyes bright with more than just sunlight, and her face young and even and beautiful.

"As you thought of me I came here, gifted you a while your breathing, breath to nourish and sustain you. Come not to bathe in Vellamo's waters! 'tis the death of hapless maidens, seeking to escape a suitor, to escape their family's strictures, unkind brothers, zealous mothers, pearls and veils and bridal raiment. Vellamo will gladly take you, to Ahtola will invite you, to become the whiting's sister, and the friend of perch and salmon."

"I - I'm not supposed to get married yet," Tuuri blurted out. "My brother is a - he's mean, that's why I ran away. But you're really her!" she added quickly, with the cool clarity of the water-maiden's breath rising to her head like magic. Her words left no doubt. "You're really Aino!"

"Once was called this, aino tytti, sister fair of Joukahainen, promised once to Väinämöinen, slave and prop and minstrel's helpmeet. Vellamo received me kindly, took me in despite my weeping, swim now joyful with my fellows, maidens dear wiht sweeter kisses, sweeter far than Väinämöinen's, sweeter far than worldly riches. But you're young yet, mortal girlchild, younger far than maiden Aino, younger far than when I drowned me, not your place to come yet join us." A beat. Aino swam closer to the boat, still careful to stay out of Tuuri's range. Her skirt of foam billowed around her. "Shouldst turn homeward, mortal girlchild. Dangerous to row these waters - drowning's one thing, then another to arouse the wrath of water, and the third one, worst of dangers, sickness that will warp you wholly, twist your spirits and your body. Many have gone seeking sources, many sought to find a healing, none and none, in spite of power, found Rash's origin and reason. Not a child of Loviatar, not a spawn of Tuonela, worse far than the nine diseases, no one knows of Rash the curing. Turn you homeward, mortal girlchild, turn and never venture outside, out into the world of silence, or it will prove your undoing."

"But -" Tuuri reached again, desperate. Aino's fair head vanished under the water, a ripple and shimmer of gold, and a shadow as she darted away, quick as a fish. "Come back! Come back!"

Aino didn't surface again.

Tuuri sat in her boat for a long time. The other women had vanished from the rocks as well, as though she had never spotted Vellamo's maidens bathing, and as though she'd never received Aino's warning.
It did not scare her, but the disappointment weighed heavily on her mind. She'd thought that maybe being rescued meant something and that being given her breath back - breath to nourish and sustain you, but all it left was bitter disappointment and a longing to go out to look for the water maidens again.

Somehow, though, Tuuri knew she wouldn't find them, no matter how hard she looked. The sight of the laughing eyes in between the rush of bubbles, the hand with the shimmering salmon scales, and the maiden's voice stayed with her for a long time, and she pulled them close to her through her parents' lectures from behind the thick glass of the quarantine station, and Onni's scolding, and Lalli and grandma's disapproving silence, and the two weeks in the tiny quarantine room with the hard bed and almost nothing to do.

She kept the encounter to herself afterwards, too.

*

Onni pleaded with the powers of sky and water to grant them safe passage as the Lumilintu slid soundlessly over the lake. Lalli had hidden under the bed, curled into a tight ball, and he bit if anybody tried to touch him.

Tuuri wouldn't have known which way to turn the steering wheel if not for the shadows darting - five of them - through the water before her, with barely a ripple on the surface, never so quick that she couldn't follow.

The boat wasn't making much speed, even though - tears stung Tuuri's eyes at the thought - even though it'd only been a year since Tuuri and her mother had set to work on the old ship that was bleeding rust down the hull, and repaired the damage that 78 years had wrought on her. They had, all of them together, spent their savings for a new motor, and under Anne-Mari's watchful eyes Tuuri had been allowed to connect cables and pipes, while Jukka and Juha were hard at work re-painting the ancient picture of the swan on the ship's sides. It was the only time Tuuri remembered that Grandmother didn't wear her pinched face, and she even helped with the re-painting, adding the glint in the swan's watchful eye, and a red heart or two.

Tuuri wondered if it had been Onni's prayer that sent the figures darting before the ship as she fought with the steering and her own tears, guided her around rocks and shallows, and into safer waters.

Golden hair, Tuuri could have sworn, flowed from the head of one of the figures, and a beckoning hand shimmered like salmon scales rising from the water to direct the way.

Tuuri wondered if she was old enough now.

She couldn't be that much younger than Aino had been then, and unasked-for, the memory of the cold, sweet crush of lips and Aino's breath rose to Tuuri's mind, with enough force to bring all of it back - the seafoam skirt billowing, Aino's advice that'd helped her let Onni watch her every step and put up with all his piss-headedness.

She'd thought she'd be free of all of it sometime. When she got old enough to leave on her own and nobody was allowed to stop her any longer - but not like this. One hand on the wheel she reached back toward Onni standing behind her, and his voice shook for a moment through his chanting as she pulled him closer. Onni behind her, Vellamo's maidens ahead. Much better to think of all that - Onni's steadfastness, and Aino's laughing eyes and cool lips - than the image of her home succumbing to the Rash and the fire that would in the end leave no traces of it, and of her family.

At least she still had her great-grandmother's book, running her fingers over the dog-eared pages for comfort.

*

Tuuri was down by the docks almost the entire day before her departure, until it came to resigning from her position with Lalli. If anyone asked, people crossing from the barracks or day scouts on patrol by the shore, Tuuri claimed excitement for leaving Keuruu - almost everyone knew her, or at least about her - the non-immune Saimaa kid who talked with traces of a funny accent, couldn't sit still, and knew the island shores inside the walls like the back of her hand, but she let them think that was all there was to it.

No one, not even Onni knew that, now that Tuuri was old enough, she dreamt of kissing Aino, sometimes, and Aino's hands doing more than lifting her back into her boat, pulling her under the water and holding her there until they'd swim together. Sometimes, the mornings after those dreams, she's hear singing and laughter from the water, but had no way to follow it. There was no chance, in the military settlement, to steal a boat and slip away unwatched the way she'd done that time in Saimaa, but she couldn't help hoping that Aino would come back for her someday, even eleven years after the wordless goodbye of Aino's speckled hand - Tuuri was sure of it - lifting from the water outside the Keuruu harbour gate.

When they'd finally boarded, Tuuri couldn't help ask her due for waiting. "I'm not going inside before I've seen the outside!"

The water stayed still and mirror-blank in the starlight.

*

The further she left Finland behind, the less Tuuri thought of Aino, as though distance dulled not just her magic, but her memory as well. She thought she'd seen a golden flash as they crossed Øresund Bridge, but that might have been a glint of sunset on a wave far underneath through a gap in the clouds, or wishful thinking altogether. Her mind filled up with freedom, until the moment she heard Mikkel tear off the tape to seal the door into the tank's office and radio room that would become her quarantine station.

It sounded much like the air-seals to the quarantine rooms she'd been locked into in her life - first that day in Saimaa she'd first met Aino, and then again coming into Keuruu. If there was going to be a third time, if she was in the clear, it would be soon. She wanted Aino there, desperately. If anyone understood Tuuri's duress, it would be her, if she was willing to come and listen.

Her books and work were her only company then, when Mikkel and Sigrun weren't. She could recite the Kalevala from heart, and especially the runos about Aino's fate, but it'd be comfort to have the dog-eared, yellowed pages to run her fingers across, but she'd left it on her desk in Keuruu, a bookmark between her favourite pages. Perhaps Onni would understand.

She thought about it again as her mask fell uselessly into the snow. After all, where she was going, she would no longer need it. The others ought at least to have a sign of her passing, something to remember her by, and she had no finery to shed as Aino had done then, tearing ribbons from her hair, a cross from her chest, and a pearl necklace from her throat.

The mask would have to do; her clothes at least would help her go down faster. This far from Finland, Tuuri did not expect Aino to come to her. And what did it matter? She'd lost all that mattered, except for the last thing - her life, if that was even still her own.

Her feet carried Tuuri to the shore, but there she stopped. The sea was rough and choppy, and cut the sunset path on the water into red shreds on the billows. Then, a glint of gold, and laughing eyes lifting over the water. Tuuri's breath caught, and she walked forward, not stopping until the water rose to her waist.

Aino swam to meet her - salmon-speckles shimmered on the fingers that wrapped around Tuuri's own, and Tuuri lifted them to her mouth to kiss them. Aino laughed and pulled on her hand, a step deeper into the water, speaking:

"Vellamo loves all the waters, let me go this far to meet you. Shall now take the breathing from you, take the breathing that you borrowed - long have watched you, long have missed you, watched you grow into a beauty, showed you sure the way to safety, now at end of life I call thee: Come with me, be my companion, and I'll give you kisses sweeter. Better dead than slave to old men, better dead than warped by Rashes. Come be one of Vellamo's maidens! With a touch of hand will drown thee, with a touch of hand will heal thee, with a touch of hand transform thee. Better be the whiting's sister, swim the sea and swim the lakeshores, swim perchance to home and country, swim along my side forever, rest at night in waves of water, rest at night in my arms only."

Something seemed to give Aino pause. Some of the mischief fell from her, and she added, "Both shall wear a silken hair-veil, that not man nor Rash may claim us, brothers not and suitors neither, but each other to embrace us."

Aino pulled on Tuuri's hand again. Tuuri knew what it meant - Aino had refused Väinämöinen's request to wear the garb of a married woman for him, but now was offering it freely. Tuuri nodded and walked deeper into the water steadily, into Aino's waiting arms, and kissed the soft, cold pair of lips taking the breath from her.