As soon as Magda got off the plane, she checked on grandad’s ashes. It didn’t matter that she’d done it several times on the flight to Warsaw. Magda needed to know they were still with her, that she could carry something so important without anything going wrong. When her backpack went through airport security, she armed herself with the death certificate, ready to fend off any member of staff who looked at her suspiciously. No one gave her a second glance as she floated along the current of humanity crammed into a single file line.
Magda lugged her suitcase into the arrivals section, where a tall, balding man held a sign with her name on. His face lit up when he saw her. “Cousin! Good to see you.”
“Hey, Olaf.” Magda smiled, being swept up into a bear hug. The last time she’d seen Olaf had been at grandad’s funeral. It looked like he’d put on weight, but then Olaf’s relationship with food had always been an enthusiastic one. Magda found the swell of his belly to be oddly comforting.
“Come, come. It is a beautiful day outside. Your hotel is not far.”
On the drive into the city, Olaf talked about the latest developments in the Polish post service industry. He pointed out stamps he’d collected from the countries he’d visited, which lined the dashboard of his car. He asked about the efficiency of the English postal service. Olaf spoke about the post office with such energy that Magda felt it would be an insult if she interrupted. She contented herself with listening and making sure the backpack stayed perched in her lap.
As they approached the outskirts of Warsaw, Olaf stared at the bag. “You are doing the right thing,” he said. “Your dziadek is home now.”
Magda nodded. To distract herself from the ashes, she cleared her throat. “I’ve been focusing on my PhD a lot lately. It’ll be another year before it’s finished, so I’m glad to get away from London for a little bit.”
Magda wasn’t ashamed to admit studying history had become her life. While her friends were off settling down, Magda spent her time sifting through books on communism in her local library. Writing her thesis on post-Soviet Poland excited her. It was a calling she felt down to her bones, a story that reached out across generations, demanding to be told.
But as she marched towards her thirtieth birthday, Magda couldn’t shake the anxiety that tangled in her gut. A lot of people she knew in London were married and on their way to starting a family. They had partners to rely on, a support system. Every time mum asked if she’d found anyone special, the knot inside her twisted tighter. Grandad’s death felt like a sign, a moment to clear her head and get out from under the pressure of domestic life.
Magda looked out of the window, seeing the Palace of Culture and Science in the distance. She imagined grandad muttering darkly at the sight of it. A shrine to Stalin’s ego, he would’ve called it. The symbol of everything he’d hated.
From an architectural point of view Magda thought the building was attractive. It stood tall, a beacon of tourism that educated as much as shocked. Was it a betrayal of grandad’s memory to think like that? The car came to a sudden stop, jolting Magda back to the present.
“Here it is.” Olaf motioned towards the hotel in the centre of the Praga district. After getting her suitcase out of the boot he said, “My mother and father would like to meet for breakfast in the Old Town at 10 AM. We go together, yes?”
“Sounds great. Again, thanks for driving.”
The next day, Magda woke to the sound of birds chirping outside. Light pierced the curtains, casting golden lines across the room. Magda decided to store the ashes inside the wardrobe, confident they would be safe until she returned. She went down to reception, where Olaf sat waiting with a half-eaten bagel in his hand. Crumbs dusted his polo shirt. “Good morning, cousin. Are you ready to eat?”
“I’m starving,” Magda said, her stomach growling.
On the way into the Old Town, Magda took in the view of the Vistula River. It stretched for miles, connecting beach after beach. Soon enough, the medieval buildings of the square rose up in all their splendour. Magda had been in awe of the Old Town when she’d first visited, and the feeling never went away. The cobbled streets thrummed with activity. Vendors sold ice cream in the shadow of the St John’s Cathedral, while tourists snapped selfies in front of the Royal Palace. The Old Town was a place of greatness and sadness, of destruction and rebirth. Being in the square made Magda proud to be Polish.
Even with all the crowds, Olaf had no problem spotting his parents. Uncle Jakub and Aunt Eva were both shorter than Magda, so she found herself stooping to hug them. Eva’s English wasn’t as good as Olaf’s, while Jakub’s was non-existent. Growing up, Magda had never tried to learn Polish, something she attributed to mum and dad raising her to fit into London society. But in situations like this, she felt self-conscious.
For breakfast, Magda picked porridge topped with blackberries. Compared to the rest of her family, she ate slowly. Olaf wolfed his stack of potato pancakes, competing with his dad to see who could finish first. Eva slurped a bowl of soup.
Out of the corner of her eye, Magda noticed a mermaid statue in the middle of the square and it made her smile. The story of Melusina the mermaid had been one of grandad’s favourites. She remembered sitting on his lap while he told her about the mermaid being a protector of the city. How she would give her life for Warsaw. Grandad spoke about Melusina with such affection that he made her seem real, and for a time, Magda believed him. The little girl who trusted in fairy tales was long gone, but the memory remained.
Jakub said something in Polish, his wheezy voice making it harder to understand.
Olaf mopped up the last of his food with a napkin, leaning over the table. “My father asks what you plan to do with the ashes.”
Magda told them and Olaf translated. Jakub coughed, his face scrunching up. Eva patted his leg, keeping a gentle hold. When he’d settled down, Jakub spluttered another few words.
“Father says where you travel is a dark place.”
Magda had prepared for a negative reaction. Given what grandad experienced in the war, she wondered about his choices. But his last wishes were clear. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Uncle.”
Olaf waved the apology away. “Father understands. It is as it should be.”
The rest of the day passed in good spirits. Magda strolled through Lazienki Park, enjoying the beauty of sprawling gardens. She ate pierogis and toasted grandad’s memory with shots of vodka. By the time she returned to her hotel, it was dark outside. Magda gathered up the ashes into her backpack, took out a map and set off for the Vistula.
Magda wandered along the river banks, listening to the distant rhythm of party music. The spot grandad marked on the map was off the normal trails. Magda tried to picture what he must have been feeling while his home burned around him. How much fear could a person handle? How had he coped with seeing his countrymen gunned down by German troops?
Across the river, the Old Town twinkled with thousands of lights, picturesque as a postcard. The blood had been wiped clean, the damage repaired. A historian remembered. Magda remembered for grandad.
Magda trudged on for another hour, following the map into the trees. At last, she came to a small hill that overlooked a cove. A pretty sight, but Jakub’s warning came back to her. A dark place. To escape the Germans, a lot of Poles fled through the woods, only to be hunted down. An aura clung to the area, the kind that made Magda’s lips tremble.
She stood for a while, soaking in the melancholy, working herself up for the last farewell. Splashing came from the cove, drawing Magda’s attention. A silver tail crested the surface, disappearing as quickly as it appeared. Magda stepped towards the water’s edge, trying to see through the murk. The tail came up again, scales flashing in the light of the moon. At first, Magda thought it was a big fish, but the shape beneath the surface was too… elegant.
The spear shot out of the water so fast Magda almost didn’t see it. She yelped, falling backwards as the weapon embedded itself in the grass near her feet. Any closer and it could have pierced a vein. Vibrations rippled along the spear, an unseen force pulling it from the ground. It whipped back towards the cove and into the hand of a black-haired woman. A necklace of moisture beaded her throat, sliding down her exposed body in rivulets. Magda might have found her nakedness unsettling if it wasn’t for the tail that bobbed in the surf.
The woman rattled off a string of Polish, none of which Magda understood, but she didn’t dare move in case the spear came at her again. Magda breathed steadily, trying to make sense of what she was experiencing. The rational part of her brain shouted for Magda to wake up, to rally against the idea of a mermaid yelling at her. But she couldn’t take her eyes away. After a while, the woman went silent, her fingers tapping against the hilt of her weapon.
“Who are you?” Each word came down heavily, like a wave crashing against a beach.
“My name is Magda Brant.” Her voice barely rose above a whisper.
“Begone from this place,” the mermaid said. “Or you’ll find I won’t miss next time.”
Curiosity kept Magda rooted to the spot. It was the kind of burning fascination that every historian felt when they wanted to know the truth, the kind that outweighed self-preservation and punched through the vice of fear that gripped Magda’s heart, at least momentarily. “I’m sorry for disturbing you,” she held out her hands in surrender. “All I’m here to do is say goodbye to someone.”
The mermaid’s grip on her spear tightened. “And you think you have the right to do so in my waters? You lack the virtue of common sense.”
“I was following my grandad’s map. I didn’t think anyone else would be here.”
“What was his name?”
“Konrad Baranowski,” Magda saw the mermaid’s expression change, as if remembering a story from long ago. In that moment, Magda found herself thinking about the folktales grandad liked to tell. The Dragon of Krakow, the Golden Duck of Warsaw, Boleslaw and his Knights. All of it had sounded like a fable, but the details came back in a rush of magic, the name springing from her tongue before she could stop herself. “You’re Melusina, aren’t you?”
The mermaid stiffened, her trance broken. “You’re a nosy one. Nosy folk are never satisfied, even when they think they have all the answers. Konrad Baranowski was the same.”
“Grandad spoke about you all the time!” Magda felt so giddy that if she tried to stand up she knew she’d fall over again. “He said you kept him safe and that you’ve always protected Warsaw. He made you sound so real… Sorry, not that I didn’t think you weren’t real. I’m babbling. I do that a lot.” Getting hold of her emotions, Magda took the ashes jar out of her backpack. “He wanted his remains scattered here. I promise it won’t take long.”
Melusina’s face betrayed no emotion. “Human frailty can’t be helped. Do what you came here to do.”
“Thanks,” Magda said, relief spreading through her. “Can I ask how grandad met you? It’s not every day I meet a living, breathing mermaid and it’d help me get a better idea of what he was like when he was younger.”
Melusina glanced into the distance until her gaze returned to Magda. “What stories have you heard of my life?”
“I know a couple. You were caught in a net and a fisherman’s son set you free. Other times, it was a prince who let you go.”
“Lies,” Melusina hissed. “Yarns told by fools. Long ago, I swam freely with my sister, Syrena. The world was our ocean. We explored it together until we wished to follow our own paths. Mine led me to a city filled with noise and light. Seeing Warszawa for the first time filled me with joy. So much life in such a small place. It made me want to sing and sing I did. One day, an old fisherman heard my voice. To him, I was little more than a prize to be caught. The fisherman dragged me to shore and he’d have used me to make money, if not for his son, Jan.”
“The fisherman’s son had me locked away. He believed I was demon, a foul thing sent by his God to punish the righteous. Every day, Jan would visit my prison, whispering of how I’d burn for what I was. My only solace was the thought of seeing Syrena again. It kept me alive. Jan wasn’t my only visitor. His half-sister Iga came with food and kind words. She too had felt his abuse. She knew his madness needed to end. It was Iga who helped me escape. After recovering, I caught up with Jan and his father when they were fishing. I showed them what righteousness truly felt like.”
“I found Syrena again in a place called Copenhagen. She had been living a charmed life, free of persecution. For a long time I refused to see humans as anything other than monsters. But it was Syrena who reminded me of their kindness. I never forgot what Iga did for me. I couldn’t hold an entire city in contempt for the misdeeds of two men. No matter how far I swam, I always returned to Warszawa to remember what I’d survived. It was there I met another survivor called Konrad. A halfwit of a boy swimming in the Vistula. His friends dared him to see how deep he could go, but the current was too strong. I made sure he made it back to land.”
Magda listened intently, her admiration for Melusina growing with every word. She didn’t dare imagine what it must have felt like for the mermaid during her first time in Warsaw. To be able to overcome what she’d been through was incredible. She pictured grandad as a teenager, hot blooded and eager to take on the world. “What made you want to save him?”
“I dislike being a passive person,” Melusina admitted. “I didn’t think much of it at the time. Your grandfather was half-drowned and delirious. I never counted on him remembering what he saw. He came back to the Vistula, looking for me. Too stubborn for his own good.” Melusina shook her head, black curls falling into her eyes. Magda got the feeling she was smiling.
“I refused to show myself, yet Konrad continued to search. It took him a few years but he eventually found this place. I knew there wasn’t much I could do to get rid of him after that. He came here often, bringing food and promising not to tell anyone. It was a peaceful time until the war.”
Melusina’s voice took on a graver tone. “On the night of the bombings, Konrad led survivors out of the city and passed by here. The Germans followed. I wouldn’t have my waters stained with innocent blood, so I did what I had to.”
A shiver crept along Magda’s back. “You helped to make a difference.”
“Death was the true victor,” Melusina sighed. “Your grandfather fought bravely. It was the last time I saw him.”
Magda cradled the container. “He lived a good life. And he’s here now.”
Melusina nodded. “Then, let us say goodbye.”
Magda stood at the cove’s edge, a cool wind blowing around her. She emptied the container and Melusina swept her spear over the surface, making sure the ashes spread across the water. Magda watched the black dust swirl, becoming a part of the Vistula, a part of Warsaw. Magda raised her head high, making a silent vow to carry on the example grandad left behind.
BIO: Jamie Ryder is a short story writer from Manchester, England. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and his work has appeared in Hyperion and Theia, Colp, EastLit Magazine and other publications. When not writing fantasy stories, you can find him rambling about pop culture on thecomicvault.wordpress.com.