‘Castle on the River Vistula’: Featured Fiction by Michelle Tea

January 18, 2019 | 10 min read

Today, we’re excited to launch a new series of fiction excerpts at The Millions. And to kick things off, we present the first two chapters of Michelle Tea’s Castle on the River Vistula, the third book in her Chelsea Trilogy, out Tuesday from McSweeney’s McMullens. The title was featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview, with Ed Simon writing:

Protagonist Sophie Swankowski’s journeys in Tea’s young adult Chelsea Trilogy will come to an end in Castle on the River Vistula, when the 13-year-old magician journeys from her home in Massachusetts to Poland, the birthplace of her friend “the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena.” Tea is an author familiar with magic, having penned Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and she promises to bring a similar sense of the supernatural in Sophie’s concluding adventures.

Castle on the River Vistula

As the girl and the mermaid swam toward the mouth of the river Vistula, the landscape around them grew lush and green with underground gardens of weeds: forests of bladder wrack, their branches dotted with bean-like bulbs of air; wide leaves of sugar kelp, their edges frilled as clamshells. Bright, grassy sprigs of seaweed sprouted in between coral, like shoots breaking through cracks in a Chelsea sidewalk. Everywhere, long, flat ribbons of sea wrack undulated on the currents, over rolls of verdant algae that looked like spring meadows.

“All right,” Syrena said, pulling her tail in front of her and coming to a halt. “We stop here for some business.”

“What sort of business?” Sophie asked, eyes wide. In all their underwater travels they had never stumbled upon such a fertile-looking seascape. Poking in and out of the drifting fronds Sophie spotted the fat bellies of jellyfish and scrabbling, big-eyed crabs; a tiny, pokey fish darted behind a weed before Sophie could even tell what color it was.

Syrena removed the heavy backpack she’d been carrying for Sophie, setting it gently between a couple stands of coral. She tugged it open, and began stuffing it full of seaweed.

“Come, you help. Gather as much of the weeds as you can.” She lifted from Sophie’s tangles the octopus that had been her companion for much of their long journey through the sea. “You, too. You have many legs, you can help lots.”

Sophie watched as the octopus pulsed through the waters, grabbing at leaves with his many curling tentacles. Then she shrugged and joined the harvest. She tugged up tough handfuls of seagrass that nearly cut her palms. She rolled leaves of sugar kelp into thick, wobbly tubes. She reached out and snatched sea wrack as it floated past, and uprooted so much bladder wrack she could hardly wrap her hands around it. The backpack bulged with vegetation, tendrils spilling out the top. Syrena used all her might to squash the plants down, loading more in on top until the flaps could not be buckled, and the octopus was employed to splay itself across the top, its many legs stretched long, holding the bounty in.

“Now you,” Syrena motioned to the girl. “I’m tired of that thing bumping and banging over me.”

Sophie gaped at the backpack.  It had begun as an oversize, saggy sack drooping with the weight of the laptop she’d salvaged from the crashing submarine. Sophie got chills as she remembered locking eyes with the desperate scientist, how he wordlessly pleaded with her to take the computer so that at least his work would survive—even if he wouldn’t. A terrible moment, but she had done as he’d asked, and the mermaid had done her the favor of lugging it through the waters. But now that she’d stuffed the thing fat as a trashbag of raked New England leaves in autumn, she wanted Sophie to be the one to haul it?

“You want me to carry that?” Sophie asked.

“Is not heavy,” Syrena said. “It only, how you say, awkward.”

“How am I supposed to swim with that thing weighing me down?”

Syrena scoffed. “You no swim. Water swim for you. Come now, don’t be baby. Look how hard little octopus is helping! You can at least work as hard as baby octopus, ya?”

Sophie felt annoyed by the sparkle in Syrena’s eyes as she bent down and laced her arms through the shoulder straps. The mermaid was right, it wasn’t very heavy, but it was ridiculously cumbersome and almost knocked Sophie backward before she caught her balance.

The mermaid giggled. “Now who look silly in backpack?”

“Why are we even doing this?” Sophie sulked. “Is there no food in Poland? Aren’t we going to be swimming a river? Won’t there be tons of stuff to eat along the banks?”

Syrena’s face grew still at Sophie’s questioning; all teasing, all giggles, vanished. She was the stoic mermaid again, the one Sophie had first found in the creek—somber, serious, even gloomy.

“Sophie.” Sometimes the mermaid’s words seemed to spout from her mouth like her language was carried in her cheeks; other times they seemed dredged from the pit of her gut. The way the mermaid spoke her name gave Sophie the shivers.

“What is it? Why are you looking at me that way?”

“You know, I tell you before, your body been through very much. Your body, your mind, your heart. You been through so much, Sophie.”

“Yeah,” Sophie tried to shrug, but the backpack pressed down on her shoulders. “But I’m okay.”

“The sea water help you. The salt nurture you, help to work against the bad effects of everything that happen. From back in Chelsea, when Kishka attack the creek, to even right now. When you change into shark, Sophie, when you change into mermaid, all these things take toll, ya? When you confront the Invisible. When you go inside the heart of Blooughadda.”

“How did you know I did that?” Sophie gasped.

“Is not bad, is fine. Is fine to visit whatever heart you like, Sophie. It only take toll. The heart of a Billow Maiden a rough, wild place.”

“Tell me about it,” Sophie mumbled, remembering Bloo’s heart, how raw and hot and vast it was.

“We will be leaving the ocean shortly,” Syrena said. “Take a peek above the waters, if you like. Go ahead.”

Sophie was surprised to find herself hesitant. She hadn’t been above the waters in what felt like months, years, a lifetime. She had entered the creek in Chelsea one girl, and now, as they prepared to swim into the mouth of the river, she was another girl entirely. Slowly she kicked her legs against the water, rising upward, the light growing brighter as she ascended, illuminating everything around her. She could see herself more clearly—her kicking, scuffed-up legs; her bare toes; the once-lovely linen jumper the Ogresses had fashioned for her, now in tatters. Her head tilted back, Sophie saw blue, a new blue, sharp and wide. Sophie saw the sky. At the sight of it she gasped, inhaling a mouth full of salty seawater. She broke the surface of the Baltic sputtering, her eyes tearing, her lungs heaving. Sunlight—sunlight!—caught the droplets that shook from her as she coughed, like bits of molten gold.

It took Sophie a few minutes to adjust to the brightness of daytime on earth. Her eyes ached; she could feel them pulse as they struggled to shift from the ocean’s ambient darkness to this violent glare. She stared back down at the water, away from the sky, while they calibrated to this new environment. Slowly, she looked up.

Trees, and beyond the trees, meadow. She hadn’t seen such green, such verdant, living green, in a long time. Actually, considering she’d come from Chelsea—not the greenest place on the planet—maybe she’d never seen so much unbroken, unsullied green. There’d been the green of the seaweed forest they’d just harvested, but that was a dark and murky green. These trees, these leaves and grasses, were every shade of green, most of them such a sharp tone it practically made Sophie’s mouth water. She realized she was hungry. Hungry for earth food. Hungry for—a salad? Yes! Sophie wanted to fill her mouth with living green things torn from their roots. Were she able to reach those trees, still very far away, she would have pulled handfuls of leaves from their branches and stuffed them into her mouth like popcorn.

The water beside Sophie rippled as Syrena’s dark head broke the water.  “Arghch!” the mermaid yelped as the bright sun assaulted her eyes. She closed them, rubbing them furiously with her translucent fists. She stared down at the rippling waters, then slowly raised her face to the sky, shading her eyes with her hand.

Polska,” Syrena said as she gazed at the green, and her voice held all the sheen of the sunlight on the water.

“It’s beautiful,” Sophie marveled. “I’ve never seen a place so pretty. It’s making me hungry for human food!”

“Oh, the food the people eat in Poland!” Syrena laughed. “Sausage and pierogi and sauerkraut and cakes with tiny poppy seeds and bigos and soups with mushrooms and soups with cucumbers, or beet soup, and kasha. Long ago they eat bear, ya? Bear paws with spicy roots, or tongue of the bear.”

“I was more thinking I’d like a salad, actually,” Sophie said, scrunching her face at the thought of eating paws or tongue.

“You might have to magic yourself some salad,” Syrena laughed. “Much food in Polska, but not much salad. Look—” The mermaid grabbed Sophie by her bulging backpack and spun her around in the water. Off to the right, clustered around the water’s edge, was a rust-colored town. If she squinted, Sophie could make out the spires of churches or castles or towers, the reddish color stained pale green by time.

“Is Gdansk,” Syrena said proudly, as if she had built the town with her own hands.

“Are we going there?” Sophie asked.

“Nie. Is not along our way. But just to see. A beautiful city, ya?”

“Yeah,” Sophie nodded. From where she bobbed in the water, it looked like a fairy-tale place, something seen only in the very oldest books. Syrena, her hand still gripping Sophie’s pack, spun the girl back around so that her eyes were filled with green.

“You see there?” The mermaid pointed to the place where the ocean cut into the green land like a wide, blue road. “That is River Vistula. That is my home. More than Polska, or Warszawa, River Vistula my home. I cannot believe we here. And that you here too, Sophie.” The mermaid paused and stared at the girl, and Sophie was unnerved by her stare. Above the water Sophie’s pale blue eyes were nearly silver, and in the sun they all but vanished.

“What is it?” Sophie said. “You’re creeping me out.”

“Sophie, the Vistula not salt water. Is fresh water.”

“Okay,” Sophie said. “So?”

“Salt water will be with us for little while, but not long. Gone very soon. Then you have the sea plants, ya?” The mermaid hit the sack of vegetation strapped to Sophie’s back. “They contain salt. Good for you to eat, to chew on, suck on, just keep in mouth maybe. Look.” With considerable effort, the mermaid lifted her weight of hair from the waters. Sophie could see strips of sea plants woven in and out of the thick tangles. “I bring more, I bring much as I can, ya? But we must swim the river quickly. We must get you to salt castle, and to Tadeusz. You will begin to feel sick on this river, ya? But you will fight it, you will suck the salt from these plants, you will swim very fast, we both will, ya?”

Sophie ingested all that the mermaid was telling her. She knew she was being called to be strong, and she bolstered herself. She could swim fast, she could command the waters to move very quickly. She would eat this whole giant bag of seaweed if it gagged her. She wouldn’t complain. The iciness of the mermaid signaled how serious this was, and Sophie made herself icy in reply.

“Of course,” she said. “I can do it. Let’s go.”

“Wait,” Syrena stilled her. “Another change. Sadly.”

“What?” Sophie’s heart thumped quickly inside her. She didn’t want so many changes. Although she’d known all along that the purpose of this epic journey was to reach Poland, leave the mermaid, and train to destroy Kishka, the ancient source of evil in the world who decided to show up this lifetime as her grandmother, Sophie had become accustomed to the rhythms of the ocean, the company of Syrena. Why couldn’t she just travel the deep forever, living a mermaid lifestyle, never mind Kishka, never mind whatever magic Sophie had inherited, whatever massive effort was expected of her just because she happened to be half-Odmieńce. Sophie never asked to be the saver of the world! She was just a kid! Really she should be back in Chelsea, wandering the halls of Chelsea High, a freshman, getting slammed into lockers by mean girls and dogged by awful boys, prepping her brain so that she could someday get out and go to college and live a normal life, whatever that was. If Sophie couldn’t shrug off her massive duty in order to live as a mermaid then—suddenly—she wished she could return to the daily misery of her old life. Enduring the taunts and bullying of her town’s roughnecks was surely preferable to taking on the ultimate evil of the universe. Right?

Syrena had moved behind her and unfastened the octopus from the backpack, causing ribbons of seaweed to unfurl into the water, floating away. She brought the creature to Sophie.

“Octopus not coming with, Sophia. Can’t live in freshwater. Is saltwater creature, ocean creature. Ya? You understand?”

The octopus, it seemed, understood. It wrapped its tentacles around the mermaid’s neck and gave her a long nuzzle, the dome of its head snug in her neck.

“Oh!” The mermaid laughed. “Such sweet creature! To think I expect you to eat it once, when was just a baby octopus! Friend, I pledge to never eat octopus again, ya? In your honor. You will be sacred friend of the mermaid, ya?” Syrena stroked the octopus lovingly with her long, pale fingers, and untangled its tentacles from around her neck, holding it out to Sophie. “Say your goodbye.”

Sophie’s eyes were full of tears at the sight of the octopus, hanging there before her in the mermaid’s hands, his tentacles undulating around him. What a strange and silent comfort he’d been on this journey, helping revive them from Kishka’s illusions and attacks with his wise head-rubbing, from his time as a baby until now. The octopus was full of love. Sophie took him from the mermaid and clutched him to her desperately, the tears in her eyes flowing into the sea around them.

“You are the best octopus friend I’ll ever have,” Sophie said, snot clogging her nose and her eyes all stinging and blurred. “Thank you for being with me. I wish I could come visit you someday but I don’t know how I ever could. The ocean is so big. Where will you go? Where will you live?”

The octopus took a tentacle and placed it over the girl’s jabbering mouth, causing the mermaid to sputter with laughter.

“Octopus be all right!” Syrena said. “Octopus be in the sea, is where they belong.”

Sophie smiled at her friend and nodded her head. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t worry about you. But I’ll miss you. I’ll never, ever forget you.”

The octopus took his tentacle and pointed it back at himself in agreement, causing more tears to leak from Sophie’s face. She felt like Dorothy in the stupid Wizard of Oz or something. As she went to release the octopus from her grasp the creature swam closer, and with deliberation placed all its tentacles on Sophie’s head. A last massage? she thought, but as the cephalopod brought its beak into view, Sophie had a flash of the deep-sea Vulcan, the octopus that had healed both her and Syrena and given her visions, shown her everything that was going on back home in Chelsea while she was on the other side of the world, at the bottom of the sea. Was her sweet little octopus friend about to do the same? Were all octopuses magic, exhaling their very own crystal balls into the sea?

Apparently so. From the octopus’s hidden black beak emerged a small bubble of air that grew in size as it floated toward Sophie. She braced herself—braced her heart—for a glimpse of her mother, or her best friend, Ella, or Aunt Hennie or Angel or her odd sister, her twin, like looking in a mirror and seeing a stranger. But the girl in the bubble was someone Sophie had never seen before. Her hair was long and glossy-dark, spanning out around her head in a way Sophie recognized. The girl was underwater, just like Sophie: no tank of oxygen, no breathing tube. She was smiling, happy, perhaps playing. When Sophie saw who her playmate was she inhaled sharply, and shouted for Syrena.

This is the byline used for site announcements and for articles by more than one Millions contributor.