Stormy weather: Rusalki, Vodyaniye, and other forms of water magic in modern fantasy

In my last post I talked about how I incorporated the story of Gray Wolf into my books. With Hurricane Florence currently playing will-she-won’t-she with my part of North Carolina, today seemed like a good time to talk about how I worked various forms of magical water creatures into my stories, along with some good old-fashioned storm/water imagery.

There’s so much storm/water imagery in Russian literature, and so many great myths and fairy tales about vodyaniye (water-spirits) and rusalki (something somewhere between a mermaid and a vengeful spirit). There’s also some interesting contemporary Western fantasy that’s come out recently featuring them, such as “Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente, and “Dark Currents,” the first Agent of Hel book, by Jacqueline Carey. But the book that influenced me the most in my own writing is “Rusalka,” by C.J. Cherryh.

Rusalka

Why is this book out of print? I guess you’ll have to enjoy it the right way, by reading a battered old hardback.

I often, and I fully recognize the slippery slope on which I am standing here, have mixed feelings about Western authors who appropriate Russian culture and fairy tales for their fantasy. For many English-language authors, it seems like Russian culture and fairy tales are the one thing that it is still acceptable to use for providing that spice of exoticism that writing superficially about a distant, unknown, and dangerous culture provides. Do most of these authors give a crap about Russia and Russian culture? Not as far as I can tell.

But Cherryh, while not a Russianist, is an anthropologist by training, and she did a credible job of making her “Russians” seem human, as opposed to exotic window-dressing for literary showing-off. Her magical version of Kievan Rus’ is dark and scary, with hunger and infection at least as dangerous as the magical creatures who haunt its woods–and swim its waters. One of my favorite characters in “Rusalka” is the vodyanoy, who can change shape from a little eel-thing to a huge water-snake, depending on what suits him. It was that feeling of magic and menace that I had in the back of my mind as I wrote my own water-spirits, and something I specifically reference, as my little offering to Cherryh, in this scene from the beginning of The Breathing Sea II:

TBSII Cover Small

Dasha caught up in her own storm

“Don’t touch me!” Dasha cried.  The vodyanaya seemed to be getting bigger, so that she was now higher than Dasha’s waist and growing rapidly.  Dasha lashed out, slapping her across the face with her flaming hand.

The vodyanaya stopped and pressed her hand to her cheek.  When she took her hand away, there was a burn mark in the shape of five fingers and a palm showing clearly on her face.

“You burned me,” she said in shock.

“And I’ll do it again!” Dasha cried defiantly.  “If you come any closer, I’ll do it again!”  Power was coursing through her body, the prickles and tingles that normally went with it releasing themselves as flame instead of forcing her into a fit.  She could see herself doing anything: standing up to the vodyanaya, to her father, to anyone who dared to oppose her, and forcing them to submit to her will.

The vodyanaya dwindled back to her previous size, and then smaller, until she was no larger than an ordinary frog.  She half-hopped, half-slithered down the bank and back into the water without a word.

***

The wind building up around my house as I write this reminds me, in case I had ever forgotten, how much the weather affects us, and how much we are at its mercy. Accordingly, important events in my characters’ lives are often marked by important meteorological events. For example, in The Dreaming Land I, a storm breaks over the heroine Valya as she goes to rescue Ivan from his captivity. (Oh, and if you received an ARC of TDLI and feel moved to leave a review, the link is here. Although the official launch won’t happen for a couple of weeks, the book is already live so that people can leave reviews. If you already have, my sincere thanks–you are much appreciated!)

TDLI Front Cover 6:28

Valya brings the storm with her wherever she goes

This early link between rain and Valya’s love for Ivan prefigures events in the later books in the mini-series, culminating in her tears of joy at the end. Like her predecessors, Valya is intimately tied to the natural world, to the point of mirroring it, just as it mirrors her.

But the character in the overall Zemnian Series who is most closely tied to water is Dasha from The Breathing Sea, Valya’s great-grandmother. In the latter half of The Breathing Sea I (get a free preview in the Forgotten Empires Giveaway, or read it for free on KU), after her encounter with a sort of Baba Yaga-like character, Dasha is forced to confront her fear of water.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07455N7SZ/

Dasha’s awareness of her watery nature fills her with fear at the beginning of the book

This starts when she gets lost in the woods and meets a girl who offers to help her:

“Hello,” the girl said.  “I’m Vika.  What are you doing in my woods?”

Dasha rubbed her eyes again with a trembling hand, but the sparkling spots in her vision remained.  Vika herself appeared to shimmer, like sunlight on water or the ground on a hot summer’s day.  “I’m…”  Dasha cleared her throat.  “I’m traveling.  I stepped off the road to, well…”

“Were you looking for water?” asked Vika, coming over to stand beside her.  Even at only an arm’s length away, she still appeared to Dasha’s eyes to shimmer.  A breeze picked up, ruffling Dasha’s hair and bringing with it the scent and coolness of bogs and brooks.

“I didn’t think there was any water nearby,” Dasha said.

“There’s my stream,” Vika told her.  “Come: I’ll show you.”

“I need to get back to my companions,” Dasha said.  “They must be missing me by now.”

“Don’t you need water?” asked Vika.  “It’s a hot day and your waterskin is empty.  You must need water.  Then you can show your companions where you found it, and they can have some, too.”

“I should go to them first and tell them where I’m going,” Dasha said.  She knew that was the right thing to do, but when Vika told her, “My stream’s on the way to them!” she began to follow Vika, even though they headed, not towards the road, but deeper into the woods.

“How far is it to your stream?” Dasha asked, as they pushed through fir boughs.  The cool breeze was blowing briskly now, driving away the mosquitoes.  Even so, beads of sweat were running down out of the braided crown around Vika’s head, and down the back of her neck.

“Not far!” Vika assured her, turning back to smile at her.  Her face was dripping with sweat too, soaking the collar of her shirt, and the chest of her sarafan was so wet Dasha could have wrung it out like laundry.  But there was no scent of the sweat of an unwashed human: instead, all Dasha could smell was water.

“Does your family live here too?” Dasha asked.  She was surprised at how normal the words sounded.  She felt as if her mind were floating far above the rest of her, separated from her mouth by a thousand versts or more.  The air was filled with shimmers, and there was a rushing sound in her ears, like falling water.

“Just me and Serenkaya,” Vika told her cheerfully.  Serenkaya, who was walking in front, stopped and looked back at the sound of her name.  Dasha thought her gaze looked mournful.  And also pleading, as if she were begging Dasha for help.  But with what?  It was probably all in Dasha’s mind.

“Where do you live?” Dasha asked, stumbling along behind them.  Vika’s pace had quickened to a half-jog, and Dasha was struggling to keep up, but she was desperate—why was she so desperate?—not to be left behind.

“By my stream, of course,” Vika told her with a smile.  “There.”  She came to an abrupt stop.  Dasha almost plowed into her, and had to grab a tree branch to keep from falling off the streambank on which she found herself, and into the waters below.

“Where’s your house?” Dasha asked, staring down into the shimmering, flowing water that swirled beneath her.  The stream was narrow here, no more than a couple of paces across, but deep, with overhanging banks as tall as she was, and water that was deep enough she couldn’t see the bottom.

It would be easy to drown here, she thought.  One stumble, and—splash!  You couldn’t climb out.  She turned to face Vika, who was standing very close to her, so close they were almost touching.  “Where’s your house?” Dasha repeated.

“Here, of course,” Vika told her.  “Right here.”  She was no longer smiling.  Dasha thought that tears might be mingling with the sweat on her face.

“Vika,” said Dasha.  “How long have you been here?”  She reached out and took the other girl’s hand, and was unsurprised when her hand passed right through Vika’s, with no trace of their contact other than a faint tingling dampness.

***

Vika, of course, is a water-maiden, which is what I chose to call the rusalki in my stories. Although I kept the names vodyaniye, domoviye, and leshiye, transforming them in their feminine forms for my matriarchal society, the word “rusalka” is too linked with “Russia” for it to make sense in my world, which is called Zem’ and never allows the Rutsi/Ruotsi/Viking Rus to gain much purchase. So water-maidens they are. Although she and the other water-maidens in the story are specifically based off the water-maiden/rusalka in C.J. Cherryh’s Rusalka, with their transformation between their steam and solid states. And–spoiler alert!–Dasha takes on a bit of their water-maiden essence, drinking them in just as they drink in the life-force of their victims, and gaining a water-sense in the process.

Dasha also has several disturbing encounters, like the one excerpted above, with vodyaniye, who keep wanting to drag her down into their watery realm, which they claim–rightly–is her element. She finally frees herself from them by first running away on land, and then swimming, first in a river, then in the ocean. But of course, no one can free themselves from the elements, no matter how much magic you might possess.

What do you think? Do we have control over the elements, or do they have control over us? And are water-spirits and water-maidens real? If so, in what way?

Links:

The Dreaming Land I, for ARC reviewers (or if you just want to grab an early copy of it)

The Breathing Sea I (free on KU)

The Breathing Sea II (free on KU)

Forgotten Empires Giveaway, for a free preview of TBSI

Next Generation Giveaway, another place to get a free preview of TBSI

 

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