Skerry-Bride by Sonya Taaffe

You love a jötunn. You have never grown used to the cold. Of such contradictions are the loves of Midgard made.

Dröfn this time is a woman dressed like a hunter, as if to recall Skaði who married once across the worlds, but her hair roped down her back is as heavy and powerful as a wave breaking by night, black curling over the deepest green. It is not her sea-nature giving itself away—she has come before with hair as red as blood on wreck-foam, russet as late apples, blue as anime, any more than the winter whiteness of her skin is a tell of the chill running in her veins like a stream so deep beneath its lock of ice, to break through in hopes of touching live water is to tumble at once, and be trapped, and drown, screaming glassily as a sailor in the ship-breaking arms of the sea. She has been warm to the touch, summer-tanned as toast. She has been a man with skin as brown as ash-bark, gently mocking, and she has been neither, crackling in your arms like a lace of ice and birch twigs, the low windbent sedge and the bitter salt of black-cragged shores. (She has tasted of wood-moss and the musk of arctic foxes, lain a grey seal’s furnace heat against your belly. She has slicked your fingers with the weed-tanglings of dabberlocks and oarweed. You know nights of nothing human, nothing that even breathes. Your sheets have smelled of peat mist in the morning.) She leans against your doorframe in old soft jeans stained at the knees with leaf-mold and a shirt in pheasant-colored plaid, autumnal as the leather of the flying jacket she shrugged off, coming indoors, and it is not her true look, any more than the true color of her eyes is the blue-black you see more often than not, licking like frostbite at your flesh; she is a stranger and you open the door to her every time, knowing someday there will be nothing to recognize.

You knew from the first, when a man with the wind-tightened face of a traveler and hair as pale as the drifting limbs of drowned men called you by the name you had not told him and you were not instantly afraid. It was summer then and he looked cool enough to lay like a nurse’s wrist against your forehead, ice just melting to press against your lips. His bones were not boulders. He had only the usual number of heads. You saw two movies and a concert together, argued about representation in popular culture and ransacked your liquor cabinet for an experiment in obsolete cocktails, and when you woke that first morning beside a round-chinned woman whose hair coiled down between your skins as slipperily as shoreweed, it was no surprise. You did not try to guess her name, like a kenning riddle; she gave it before she left, quick as a flick of spray or the shiver-making skim of her mouth against yours one last time before she pulled on the T-shirt she had not been wearing last night and disappeared before she had even crossed the street. Only in the shower did you find the marks like port-wine spills or the press of great heat or cold, coming out under the slither of soap and water wherever his hands, hers, had rested for more than a moment on hip, shoulder, thigh, throat. They faded within the day, flared up tingling like pins and needles when a sharp-wristed girl with bilberries crushed around her mouth rapped two weeks later on the window where only oak leaves in their late-curling green had tossed a moment before. It is not an infallible sign. She has surprised you—squirrel, busker, shadow at the edge of the streetlight—before.

She will drown you, perhaps, one day, although you have never read that Ægir’s daughters were sirens. You carry a gold coin in your pocket for her mother just in case, bought from the antique shop where the two of you lingered one afternoon over fin-de-siècle inkwells and memoirs of the merchant marine. She does not speak of Ragnarök or the Æsir, of Jötunheimr if she misses it or her father’s cauldron-brewing hall, hung with the skins of sea-monsters and the nets of Rán. You joke about backpacking around Iceland or Norway, but not with your job as poor as it is, not with the strange nagging fear that Dröfn among her sisters might be something even less easily loved than the shape-changer she is now. Her kind are frost and fire and you cannot hold her safely or for long, no matter the shape she assumes to feel it. Your breath flashes white from kissing her, your fingers inside her ache like winter iron; she moves within you like a frozen sea, whitecaps above and the breathless abyss below. He lies afterward with his head in the hollow of your shoulder, winding the places over your still-trembling skin where his tattoos would twine like the bow of a dragon ship. When you begin to unbutton her hunter’s shirt, the weight of her wave-rolling hair will blind you.

You touch her cheek, stark-boned as the failing season; you breathe her scent, this time of trampled rowan and rime. You watch her eyes shift color, the storm-light of St. Elmo’s fire playing about church spires and mast-tops. You do not ask if she loves you, because she returns, any more than you tell her she does not, because she never returns the same. She leans into your touch, your warmth, everything she might be holding still for you; she is the stranger you know best and you draw the door shut behind her, this time as every other. You know what is true.

Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found in the collections Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press), A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books), and Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), and in various anthologies including The Humanity of Monsters, Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place, and Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror. She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons; she holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats.

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