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Damsels in Distress and Dysfunction

April 9, 2021

Before we get started, and continue on with our fairytale-in-progress, “Romakaji,” I’d like to remind all of you that Cold is now a podcast! Please tune in and listen, as twice a week, Cold offers a short audio program dedicated to the creative life, the writing life. In it, we endeavor to view our efforts of the imagination with a cold eye, but never a cold heart, talking about everything from family lore to the lovers, killers, curses, and destinies that compel and inspire us.

Find all of your links to Cold right here: anchor.fm/victoria-dougherty

And please, if you like what you’re hearing, don’t forget to subscribe and leave a starred review 🙂

But now, without further ado, let’s keep on keepin’ on with our story of Romakaji, the water girl. In our last installment, we explored the introduction of “the stranger” in fairytales. How the stranger might be a force for good or evil, but is ultimately a force to be reckoned with either way.

This week, we delve into probably the most common trope in all fairytales – the damsel in distress. I’m using damsel loosely here, as there are certainly plenty of tales that involve a male character needing the help of a woman in order to survive and thrive. But in “Romakaji,” we are dealing with a female damsel.

Why are these characters so irresistible to us when all they bring is trouble? I can think of a lot of reasons (depending on the damsel, of course), but at the core of our love of these characters is a very simple human need: the desire to be of help, be of consequence. To mean something to someone in a tangible, significant way. To awaken Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, to turn the beast back into a man. It’s a very personal way to be a hero or heroine, and brings with it a very personal reward – love.

“Romakaji” Part 3

By Yours Truly

10 Of History's Most Ambitious Grimoires - Listverse

At first, the water girl, Romakaji, had kept the gold chain and its charm buried under a slippery rock at the bottom of her pond. The pearl on the one side of the charm had seemed to watch her like an eye, while the seal of Count Furfur on the other side merely frightened her to death. She wasn’t sure what curse could possibly be worse than having to live out eternity in a small, cold pond, but when it came to demons – and Count Furfur was, after all, an Earl of Hell and a powerful demon at that – the water girl wasn’t taking any chances.

Only the chain with the charm was also pretty, and she hadn’t had the chance to wear something pretty in such a very long time. Two hundred ninety-six years, twenty-one days, six hours and seventeen minutes to be exact – and with the seconds ticking away. She imagined it couldn’t hurt her to put the necklace on, especially since it would mostly float about her neck and rarely make any meaningful contact with her skin. From what she remembered from her father’s grimoire, and she remembered every single word and image from the book, the seal of Count Furfur on its own could make no enchantments anyway. It would need a spell of some kind, a talisman, or a prophecy in order to actually create any magic, dark or otherwise. So on this morning, sixty-five days exactly since she’d last seen Lionel, the water girl decided to swim down to the rock and retrieve the necklace to wear – not merely to look at.

If it was Lionel who had dropped the chain and charm into her pond – and she hoped and expected that it must be – then surely he might be hoping that she’d wear it. Assuming it was a gift, of course. Assuming that he knew it was she, Romakaji, who lived in the pond. That he knew the significance of the name he had spoken sixty-five days, two and a half minutes past.

She pulled the chain from under the rock and dangled it before her. For the first time, she felt no trepidation about it. The pearl did not seem to be glaring at her and the seal of Count Furfur did not make her cool blood run cold. When she slipped it over her head and it hovered gently before her eyes, it looked at once dainty and potent. It was how Byron, her first love, had once described her. And the way she always imagined her father had seen her. That, in and of itself, felt like an omen.

The water girl kicked up her legs to float face up close to the glassy surface of the pond. Her chain and charm drifted above her face, twinkling in the beams of sun that had broken through the water. What a lovely thing it was, and the water girl admired the sameness, the steadiness of it. The charm necklace would not become more beautiful with each passing moment, nor would it hold every detail of its existence in its memory as she could. It was not cursed to stay in the pond as she was, and if the water girl wanted to, she could remove it from around her neck and toss it out of the water and into the snowy grass. Perhaps there, someone could find it and take it with them, giving the trinket a new adventure.

As the water girl fantasized about what sorts of adventures could await her necklace, she caught a shadow in the corner of her eye. She looked out past the surface of her pond to find herself staring at Lionel, who had come to the water’s edge again finally! He had the most peculiar look on his face, as if he didn’t quite believe his own eyes, and then all of a sudden, he tore off his winter jacket and dove into the chilly water with his clothes on! He grabbed her by the waste and pulled her up, breaking the surface.

“Hold on,” he said. “I’ve got you.”

Lionel dragged her through the pond and towards the water’s edge.

“No!” The water girl protested. She pushed and tried to wiggle away, but Lionel was very strong. Stronger than Byron or the boy she’d drowned with her loneliness or any other boy who had swum with her.

“Please,” she begged, but he picked her up, lifting her out of the water and placing her on the snowy edge of the pond. The water girl flailed her arms and gulped in the chilly air of the early evening. She hardly knew what to do.

Lionel then pulled himself out of the pond and reached for his coat, placing it over the water girl. He picked her up and carried her inside her old cottage, placing her on a soft, overstuffed sofa.

“Are you alright?” He asked her. “I’ll get you some hot tea.”

The water girl nodded. She snuggled into Lionel’s coat. It smelled of a big, dry man. Her eyes flitted about her old home, noting how different it looked, and how much the same. She looked at her hands, expecting they would begin to fade, disappearing altogether. Or perhaps they would decay right before her. She didn’t know quite what to expect, only that she was cursed with not to be able to leave the pond. She had felt the strictures of her confinement many times over the years – the way her body stung all over when she got too close to its edge, how coming too far out of the water made it hard for her to breathe, even if she could take of the air as well as the water. She’d felt none of these things when Lionel took her out of the pond, however.

Her hand went straight to her necklace, and she fingered the pearl and the seal of Count Furfur. On its own, the necklace was just a necklace, like the images of demonic seals in her father’s grimoire were only that – images. In and of themselves they were powerless. But it would appear the act of putting the necklace on and then leaving the pond – even if it was not by her choice – had created yet another enchantment! While the water girl, Romakaji, was intrigued and rather elated to be out of the pond, it was unclear to her whether this new enchantment was her liberation, or yet another curse.

She heard the tea kettle whistle, and the ringing and clanging of metal spoons against porcelain. She hadn’t heard these noises in such a very long time, and they sounded like music.

“Here,” he said. He brought a tray with a tea pot and two cups, plus some cream and sugar. Two silver spoons.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Lionel looked at her with great concern. She was used to being gazed at like a thing of fear and ethereal beauty, at least in the times she’d allowed people to see her. This was new.

“What happened?” He asked her. “How did you fall into the pond in your nightgown? Were you sleepwalking?”

The water girl lifted up Lionel’s coat and looked down at her shift. Of course he would think it was a nightgown. Clothing and underclothing had changed a great deal since her time.

“May I ask you your name?”

The water girl nodded and sat up a bit more. She swallowed and licked her lips, finding it hard to make the syllables. It had been so long since she’d said her name. “Romakaji.”

“Romakaji? How extraordinary!”

“How so?”

Lionel smiled. He really did have the handsomest smile. Wide, full-lipped, and with straight, white teeth.

“Well, I’ve been doing some research on genealogy in the area and I found the name of a village girl who disappeared hundreds of years ago. It was assumed she had been kidnapped by rogues and killed. Her name was Romakaji and I thought it an exceptional name. I’ve found none like it.”

“You like the name?” She asked.

“I think it’s beautiful and unusual. I find myself saying it aloud quite often, you know. Wondering what it would be like to have a wife or daughter I could call Romakaji. Don’t know why.”

Romakaji smiled at Lionel and he looked at her in a way that told her he liked her smile very much, too.

“What is your name?” She asked, although she already knew.

He told her.

“Lionel is a wonderful name,” she said. “Fierce and lyrical all at once.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, his deep, dark eyes glancing away in embarrassment. “But you still haven’t told me.”

“Told you what?”

“How it is you came to be in the pond. You could have drowned or frozen to death in a matter of minutes.”

“Oh,” Romakaji said, searching for an appropriate answer. One that was not, could not, be the truth.

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Not sure?”

Romakaji shook her head. “I don’t know how I got there or why. Perhaps I was sleepwalking as you said.”

“But you remember who you are?”

“I remember my name,” she said definitively. At least that was a truth she could tell.

Lionel looked over at a device only a little bigger than a deck of cards. Romakaji reckognized what it was and frowned.

“I should call the police,” he said, picking up the device. “Your people will be looking for you – if not now, then soon.”

“No! I mean…couldn’t I spend the night?” She blinked her eyes at him, knowing how much he would like that. How vulnerable people were to the exquisite nature of her face. Only Lionel was strong. His concern for her seemed greater than the seduction of her beauty, even if not by much.

“Just until I feel better,” she assured him. “I’m quite certain no one is looking for me.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” he said. “I mean, a girl as fine as you are. I imagine a lot of people would be looking for you.”

Romakaji reached out and touched Lionel’s face. It was smooth at his prominent cheekbone, and below that prickly with five o’clock shadow. She loved everything about it.

“What if I don’t wish to be found?”

Until next week, my Cold friends…

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