Review: “Urchins, While Swimming” by Catherynne M. Valente

4 of 5 stars.

The Eastern European folktale entity, the rusalka, gets an uncanny 1st person update in this tragic tale of a generational curse exemplifying that the sins of the parent can be visited upon the child. The rusalka is a water spirit created by the suicidal drowning of a young lady.

Kseniya loves the odd, intimate habits of her mother who apologetically wakes young Kseniya in the middle of each night to pour steamy water over her daughter’s hair and then comb through it while singing a lullaby. Then, before being put back to bed, they crawl into the brim-full tub and nestle into each other. One night, Kseniya wakes on her own to find her mother unresponsive. Even pulling her mother into the full tub cannot revive her.

Years later, Kseniya has fallen in love with a good man, Artyom.

One day he was not there, the next day his laugh was a constant crow on my shoulder. One day I did not love a man named Artyom, the net day I loved him, and between the two days there is nothing but air.

She asks him to wake her in the night to pour steamy water over her hair and to sing to her. Then, she tells him the story of her mother, Vodzimira, who once fell in love with Yefrem. Upon finding herself pregnant, she went to Yefrem and requested a priest in order to marry and name the child, but Yefrem forsook her for the priesthood. Mira, in despair, threw herself off a bridge–while heavy with her only child–and drowned . . .

This story appears in the latest anthology edited by Paula Guran, Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, published by Prime Books. “Urchins, While Swimming” first appeared in Clarkesworld, December 2006.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

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