Lucia Iglesias


The Undine wears watercolor and pearls. When she was still small fry, she flayed a coven of painted-eels and stole their skin. Like liquid glass, the eel-skin ripples over her bones, sheathing the Undine in thieves’ silk. Color trickles through the membrane as if her scales were slick with wet paint. Beneath her stolen skin, phosphorescent fish dart in furtive semaphore, scrawling glowing graffiti around her arteries. The tiny light-artists have been imprisoned under the Undine’s skin ever since she nicked a strand of tiny, pearly eggs from an expectant mother and combed them into her eel-skin. Wreathed in ropes of her mother’s pearls, the Undine glides through her cavern pools. Fish flinch from her shadow.

Most treasured amongst the Undine’s trophies is her tail, the lanternfish’s tail. The color of insomnia and overripe bruises, it still twitches with the lanternfish’s spite. She expected his gnashing rage to seep away with the blood when she sutured his tail under the ridge of her hipbones, but the lanternfish has proved to be her most mutinous trophy, and thus made himself her favorite. When the Undine wearies of peeling the shells off snails and feeding the wrigglers to her catfish — when she’s shaved whole colonies of mollusks off the cavern wall without finding a single pearl — when she’s brushed her hair to a snake-sheen with mother’s sawfish-comb — then she baits the lanternfish. Draping herself over the rim of the cavern pool, she lets her tail dry until the scales crackle like shale and their iridescence flakes off in showers of faerie-dust. When the skin is stretched so taut the veins trace frantic messages in blue-black ink, the lanternfish sweeps his tail back into the pool, dragging the Undine after it. She finds a vinegar comfort in knowing the lanternfish is still in there, somewhere.

Ever since her mother hunted a particularly succulent spelunker into the Benthic pools and never swam back, the Undine hasn’t been able to swish the taste of loneliness from her mouth. Her hair is never as silken as when her mother combed it, and it falls out in strands: saffron ribbons of kelp, long ochre fronds of bladderwrack, flags of russet straggle weed, and venom-green blades of seagrass.

But she still has her Lylö. When the taste of her mother’s absence is so rancid she has to spit, the catfish nuzzles against her fins. His whiskers feel like a warm current swirling in from the upper pools, the pools where sunlight sifts in through sky-shafts and the water tastes like laughter. The Undine’s stolen eel-skin would wither there, but she loves a wayward warm current. She suspects Lylö’s nuzzling of language — the vernacular of his whiskered kin. She keeps him fed on juicy wrigglers, but doesn’t give a barnacle about learning his kinetic alphabet, the syntax of his whiskering. There are well-schooled minnows to kidnap and puffers to pop.

The Undine is a pain-artist. She has a keen eye for the colors of agony. Though she has favorite shades — the violet bloom of a virgin bruise, the auroral throb of a cramp – she thrills herself most by conjuring new hues. With Lylö slinking after her, she glides through the cavern pools, hunting her next muse. In the perpetual dusk that haunts these caverns, she strains the shadows for prey. The light that strays in from the upper caverns is listless and wan by the time it wanders to the pool’s rim, and the darkness drowns it at its ease. But the Undine’s eyes are marshlights, beguiling green fire that ignites the cavern.

They are her muses, the creatures who catch her eye. Death was never so inventive as the pain-artist. Death has deadlines to catch, appointments to keep, miscarried un-children to console. The Undine has too much time, and a chronic fear of mortal boredom. To cure her fear, she concocts new and newer colors, expanding the spectrum of pain’s shades. If she can distill a pain so new its color has never been seen before, will it be invisible or blinding?

Yet as she swims, the fear silts up her thoughts. What if she has already stained the pools in every shade of pain? She has tweezed the wings off dragonflyfish and plucked the eyelashes from vixenfish. She has tied lionfish together by the tail. She has dried reams of butterflyfish and crushed them into glitter. Will she ever spangle the caverns with such brilliance again? Newborn galaxies glinted from the ceiling that day. She has strung up goblinfish for lanterns and lit them with phosphorescent bulbfish. Their suffering was luminous: neon green and verdigris. For her birthdays, she blows puffers into balloons and hangs them up to die festively, in gold and ivory. When she feels faint or swoonsome, she bites into a vampirefish’s blood-sack and sucks it dry. Drained and aching, he turns the color of steak and onions. The Undine stitches the pelts of the lynxshark into shawls, luscious and soft as deceit.

She nurtures their pain. Slow pain is so much sweeter. The colors are richer, more robust. Yet of all the pain she milks, most vivid are the polychrome pains of the harlequin- and tasselfish. Tortured turquoise, cerise, saffron, celandine, and amaranth tangled up and twitching as she plucks their iridescent streamers one by one.

“Lylö,” the Undine sighs. “What if I’ve outgrown my art? Is this when mother started tiddling with the Cave City’s spelunkers? They’re so sharky pale. Cave-traipsing has sucked out all their color. What’s left for me to sip?”

Lylö nuzzles against the Undine’s tail. The prickle of his whiskers is her favorite tonic. As they swim, they stir up currents in the tide-less pools. The lurkers in these caverns know how to pare themselves down to the thinness of a shadow when they feel the Undine coming. Though their half-minds cannot comprehend her pain-alchemy, they know the Undine has none of Death’s chivalry.

The Undine ignores the lurkers. They are not lustrous enough for her masterpiece. Her fancy strays toward un-colors she might extract with a noose of pearls or witchfish venom: celadon-scarlet, silver-limned vermillion, bleached sable, copper-plated cobalt, jade-laced larkspur, or a half-imaginable white-black.

She swims past the cove where she keeps her blade-rays. On spryish afternoons, when she feels too full of spritz to rest, she picks the scabs off her rays. She picks frugally to ensure an even peel, leaving their blood-crusts to ripen before she harvests again. A particularly perverse ray can survive hundreds of scabbings before his skin fails to re-crust

The Undine drifts into one of her leisure pools. Milk-blue waters polish her skin with silica, leaving her silken and sleepy. Like a sapphire set in a ring of raw volcanic stone, the lagoon glitters between its basalt banks, one of the last unravished treasures of the caves. Though luminous with algae, the pool is opaque as a blue opal. Ripples graze the smoked-glass shallows, tracing the Undine’s aimless path. In the shallows, she watches a school of harlequinfish rehearsing their aquaerial gymnastics. She mulls flaying the tiny athletes and pinning their streamers in her hair. Yet they wear their skin so frivolously, with the air of disheveled revelers who have tasted night’s sticky virtue. They are so ravishing in their rompery that the Undine cannot bring herself to repaint the scene in her signature colors. As she twists away, a fleeting stain plays in the harlequins’ wake, a color she can’t name. But she loses it in the ripple-drift before she’s even certain she’s seen it.

Buoyed by the blood-warm waters, she floats away, listless as a mist. The opaline pool is a haven, a place whose alien grace is almost enough to satisfy the pain-artist’s craving for the uncanny. Sometimes she wonders whether the pool is an artist like herself, playing with half-dreamt colors. She sinks below the ripple-line. Underwater she listens to the pool’s booming quiet, the pounding hollowness of space without sound.

The longer she listens, the faster her heart beats. Desperation curdles in her veins. She can feel deadly boredom seeping through her pores. She wraps her eel-skin arms around the catfish and scoops him from the water, making his gills flutter nervously.

“When will you make yourself worth your supper?” she hisses. “Find me a new muse or I’ll never peel you another snail.”

“Perhaps your next masterpiece is already within reach,” says a voice melting from the darkness at the cave mouth. With a splash, the Undine drops her Lylö. How could a Cave City spelunker have lost himself so spectacularly as to find her bathing cave?

The stranger sweeps from the shadows, shaking them from his shoulders like a travel-greased cloak. His hair looks spun from threads of glass, and he wears a high-collared leather duster so black it’s green, like the shell of a scarab. He smiles at the Undine, a smile pale and puckered as a scar: a story is stitched up between his lips but they look as if they went numb long ago. He is the kind of man who prefers to watch others do the feeling for him. Still smiling, he strides to the pool’s rim and kneels on the glassy black banks, his knees folding up behind him. Though the Undine’s knowledge of the man-species is just a ragged babble of rumors, fish-fables, and her mother’s ballads, she suspects those back-bending knees belong to another taxonomy entirely. And would a man really flaunt such hands, both one finger past human? Moreover, she has a lukewarm certainty that the skin of most men is not glossed with a sheen of faint feathering.

With a flick of her tail, she glides to meet him at the rim of the pool, Lylö gulping along in her wake.

“My dear Undine, it is pure elixir to finally meet you.” His voice is well-buttered, with a salty hint of the best caviar. Though he doesn’t look like a spelunker, he speaks perfect Cavelish, the Citykin language.

Carefully, the Undine sweeps together what glittering shards of Cavelish she has managed to pluck from her mother’s ballads and maledictions. Her mother was a brassy cephalopod, with just enough woman in her to tandle with stray spelunkers. The Undine’s dialect is the mongrel offspring of a linguistic orgy, a vernacular crusted with archaisms, blasphemies, and long-lost idioms — tarnished trophies pinched from the lexicons of her mother’s lovers.

“Are you a Who or a What, Cityling?” the Undine gnaws her words, chewing them into jagged syllables. In her mother’s absence, she starves for conversation, so she sucks the sounds for all their toothsome gristle.

The twelve-fingered man chuckles, but his lashes sweep down, wiping mirth’s sheen from his eyes. “Both and neither, Agula’s daughter.”

“You knew my mother?”

Sinking lower on his inverse knees, he inclines towards the Undine, inviting her into a secret.

“Whichever way you spin the word, I knew your mother. I was one of the stray spelunkers your incandescent mother so generously set arights.”

His breath is spiced with smoked marrow and charred bones. The Undine leans nearer, bruising her arms against the pool’s black banks. She can smell the pain on his breath, as if he recently dined on anguish, an ache whose color she cannot name. She recognizes a fellow connoisseur.

“Are you a Raúl? An Iago?” The Undine tries to remember the spelunkers whose trysts didn’t end in the depths of mother’s favorite pool. The waters there are so thickly ghosted with single-use lovers that the Undine is surprised to meet a spelunker willing to risk her mother’s tentacled embrace a second time. “If you’re seeking mother, wring your hopes. She’s long sunk. No one swims back from the Benthic.”

“Oh, it’s not succulent memories of your sunk mother that bring me back. I’ve come as a lover of the dolorous arts. I remember you had a trick of grating rainbow trout into showers of scales. A fluorescent performance. So vital and raw. More visceral than anything playing on Cave City’s stages.”

The Undine scrutinizes this man who is a little too much to be human. She wishes her mother were here. Mother was so much better at men. With a flick of the wrist she could open one like a clamshell, claiming her pearl.

“The trout I remember, but not you. Do you have a name?”

He skates a finger over his feathered skin, as if entranced by his own scaly plumage. His feathers are pale as the Luna moth’s, with a glint of steel.

“I have collected names at an astonishing rate. Take care should you ever decide to adopt a pseudonym, young Undine. Identities reproduce like voles. I can hardly keep an eye on all these aliases. Who knows what flavors of mischief they mix up when my back is turned. Sif’s Husband, Otter-Killer. Hell’s Father, Neck-Risker. If you seek Falcon-Cloaked look up, but Troll’s Bane is found where honor has run out. Scar-Lip wrings his words. The Lad always has a laugh tucked up his sleeve. Plague’s Nurse nurtured the first woe, but Pain’s Brother knows a redder way.”

Hardly listening, the Undine lets his names rinse over her. She is fixated on his skin. It is the color she has been looking for. What creature did he peel it from? The watercolor ripples of her eel-skin seem shabby in comparison. The Undine has never seen such skin, scaly with feather-down, bright as stolen silver spoons. She brushes her thumb against his wrist and watches the colors collide. He laces his fingers between hers, shaking off the droplets that pool in her finger-webbing. The scar-smile cuts deeper into his cheeks.

“I know an artist’s hand when I hold it,” he says, studying the Undine’s eel-skin: limpid as egg whites, pigment running like watercolor. Lylö nibbles anxiously at her fins. As she swats him away with her tail, the phosphorescent fish under her skin flare with jade anguish. Pain’s Brother holds up her hand to the consumptive light: “You are a twinkling masterpiece.”

The Undine snatches her hand back, plunging it into the milk-blue pool. “Not for sale, Pain’s Brother.” Her voice scrapes over the consonants, grinding them down like seaglass.

“Oh, I’m not a collector. Merely an admirer. Perhaps someday a patron. But from what I hear, I fear you suffer from a deficiency of inspiration. Perhaps if the light weren’t so doleful — but you grimace! I see you would not tolerate transplanting. Then I have another proposition. A suggestion. That your next masterpiece feature the one creature you’ve never considered as a subject. That catfish who gurns incessantly after you?”

Even the Undine, the pain-artist reared in murky backwaters with a gussied-up squid for a mother, even the Undine flinches. Lylö. She can feel the catfish gumming at her fins.

“You look shocked, but I’m sure it’s only skin-deep. It will wash right off. Your mother was the coldest fish — you can’t be a drop warmer. Though I wear my age impeccably, I’ve lived half an eternity. And I’ve never met an artist as homicidally devoted to her craft as you. You are a priestess of pain. I know you want to be inducted into the juicier mysteries. And when you swim into fame, I will have a real commission for you. Picture your art on a metropolitan scale — streetlights glowing from the sockets of skulls, gumdrop machines full of blue and green eyeballs — with Pain’s Brother for your patron, the City will be your paintbox. All I need is a moment of your portfolio, an impromptu audition starring the catfish. Make something of him.”

The Undine feels Lylö whiskering back and forth across the small of her back. Quick as a gill-net, her hands snap tight around him, pinning his fins. Even with her fingers in his gills, he doesn’t flail. He’s her Lylö. She already knows the color of the pain in his veins. His torment will be blue phosphorescence, submarine lightning, treachery in electric indigo. Pain’s Brother isn’t the first to promise her a new playground. Mother used to comb prophecies of apocalypse and anarchy into the Undine’s hair every morning. But she never promised her daughter a whole spoilt city to paint across the cave walls. Pain’s Brother promises a vaccine for her boredom.

The Undine’s hands are steady as she hoists Lylö from the water. Ringed in quicksilver, Lylö’s eyes gleam. Then she slings him across the pool as far as she can, creamed water running off his tail like the streamers of a meteor splashing through the Milky Way.

“Swim, Lylö!” she cries as she lurches at Pain’s Brother. Latching her fingers around his ears, she tries to pull him into the pool, but his six-fingered hands bracelet her upper arms like iron, suspending her above the water with strength he must have stolen from a much larger monster.

Pain’s Brother shakes the water out of his spun-glass hair. His leather duster is mottled with water-stains and his smile has shriveled up.

“Disappointing,” he says in a voice of burnt caramel. “No one told me you were born with a heart. You didn’t inherit that from your mother.”

“I won’t hurt the Lylö,” she spits at him. “And I already know his colors.”

Lylö hurts the same color as the Undine. They learned hurt together when they were very small. She hates that color more than loneliness. She would never hurt her Lylö.

“Then I’ll leave you to your moldering,” he says. “I don’t suppose you’ll last long if you can’t even fillet a catfish. What a waste.”

The Undine realizes his eyes have no color, or rather, that they are the color of un-things: of popped soap bubbles and nail parings and ghosts.

Then Pain’s Brother drops her back into the pool. Before she can lunge at him again, he retreats from the banks. From the lagoon, the Undine watches him as he scrapes back the cuticle of his left thumbnail, revealing bones preserved in aspic. He peels his arm perfunctorily, in a single spiraling rind. In the gel, his veins are formaldehyde-yellow, pulsing with a sly glow. As the Undine stares, studying the subtlety of his scalping, he skins himself down to the bone. Two fluttering sheets of skin trail from his shoulder blades. With a beat of his tattered wings, he kicks off into the air and soars into a darkness that stares back.

The Undine turns away. An arc of spray has glazed the cavern wall where Lylö flew past. With an artist’s hungry eye, she studies the dripping wall. In the water streaming from Lylö’s tail, there was a color she has no name for. It ignited in the spray like a rainbow kindling in a waterfall, like a circus of harlequin fish.  She can’t piece together the shards of that splintered second.

As she drifts through the pools, following Lylö, inspiration washes over her, warm as bathing in blood. She swims to the cove where she keeps the blade-rays, and at the cave mouth she slowly unlatches the net. Caked in scabs, the rays swim shyly by, jostling into the pool beyond. As they skim away from the scabbing-cave, the Undine catches a glimpse of that color again — a glisten and gone. She chases it now, through pool after pool: she unstrings the goblinfish lanterns, sets loose the luminous bulbfish, unpins the puffers. As each fish swims free, the color trails in their slipstream, glittering in the spindrift.

A scientist would bottle it, cork it, put a typewritten label on it. But the Undine is an artist. She relishes the ephemeral flirtation. Finally, she slithers up onto the banks and unclips a razor-clam from her hair. Stitch by shuddering stitch, she unseams the lanternfish from her hips, letting the stolen tail slip back into the ripple-stream. The waters close over the tail like an eye shutting to sleep. From between the sleepy lashes, the color winks at her one last time.

Her legs feel borrowed, too long, too short, tailored for someone else. They look brand-new, never-worn, too clean and sleek, as if they’ve just been unwrapped from a rustle of tissue-paper. Sitting on the bank, she swings her legs into the pool. Lylö swims up and nuzzles her ankles. He doesn’t seem to mind their tissue-paper newness. The Undine strokes him absentmindedly, imagining her next masterpiece, the first in her new medium. She will follow Pain’s Brother, unraveling his work, uncovering the color too quick to name. But then perhaps, the man with eyes of un-colors and skin that turns shades inside out, the man who wanted Lylö rendered up, will come looking for her, heedless that she can fan out all the secret shades folded into suffering. And she will revel in the color of revenge, will make of him her last masterpiece in the old medium. “Pain’s Brother, Peeled,” she will call it. Already she sees the color scheme: melted teeth and frozen fire. He will make a pretty picture.

“The Undine and Pain’s Brother” ©  Lucia Iglesias
Lucia Iglesias has taught English in Germany, packed produce at the farmers’ market, and modeled for art students. She travels widely and often. Though she grew up in California, she suspects she is a changeling and is still looking for her real home.


The illustrations are modifications of “”The Little Mermaid” and “The Merman King” by Edmund Dulac, from the book ‘Stories From Hans Christian Andersen’, pub. 1911.  Edmund Dulac (1882 – 1953) was a French artist famous during  “The Golden Age of Illustration”,  circa 1880 – 1920. 

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