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Under the Skin

Chapter Text

Horrible thoughts constantly bubbled up.

Marie didn't know where the thoughts came from or even why.

She prayed to Mary Mother of God to intercede for her. Horrible ideas remained.

She could have managed horrible dreams. The soldiers who returned from the trenches missing arms and echoes in their eyes, they had horrible dreams. Everyone had nightmares. She dreamed of Papa tangled in the barbed wire, split in half by a winter hail of bullets as he drowned in mud, but that was normal.

It was not as if she'd seen the horrors of the Great War. Marie had never left Vita-les-bains, which drowsed in its narrow valley in the foothills of Alps. Nothing ever happened there. No one really came there. Some fifty years ago, people came for the waters. It had been a spa town since Roman times. But these days, people flocked to the beaches in the south.

These days, the only one around there that had any money was Loupe de Guerre. "His mother named him well when she spat him out," said Grandpapa Henri. Loupe had made his fortune in the Great War making shells and gas and miles of barbed wire. The shell rilled fields full of white crosses in the north attested to how great that fortune must be.

One winter, while the snow hung suspended in the cold, he roared into town in his great black Peugeot. He had purchased the old walled town of Langres-sur-montagne that perched three valleys over with boxes of new minted bills, because his family had been from there. But no one named Guerre was buried in any of the cemeteries.

Often cars full of laughing beautiful people were seen driving up the long road and even trucks full of champagne. They rarely came into town though. They came and cars left.

It was a favorite occupation of the people of Vita-les-bains to gossip about the wild parties.

Their gossip was never as lurid as Marie imagined those parties to be. She imagined thoughts a good girl ought not to have.

Good girls. Marie heard a great deal about what good girls ought and ought not to do. She heard it from Father Bernot. She heard it from Grandpapa Henri. Especially after Mama ran off with the cutlery salesman to Lyon.

Sometimes when she heard too much, she went out to the apple tree behind their home to pick apples. At least then if she was thinking horrible thoughts, she was also picking apples.

She climbed the old black branches. The tree was old. Older than their house maybe. It never had many apples, but the ones that were there were sweet. She sat on a gnarled limb and she ate. She sat in the sun and crunched flesh between her teeth. Somehow there were never any to bring inside.

When she was full, she went in better able to listen to Grandpapa Henri's warnings about that handsome devil leading her to loose ways like her Mama.

Marie did not find Loupe's smile handsome. His smile made her think of the teeth of ice off the eave of a house. His gray eyes made her feel the bark of the winter wind off an icy mountain. His laughter made her think of the retort of rifles in hunting season.

Those horrible thoughts that she prayed against, filled her as she felt that cold. Her eyes would drift down to the tight fit of his grey trousers. She had the kind of thoughts that filled a girl's belly and had her jumping off bridges or stabbing a butcher's knife in her faithless lover's heart. Thoughts that a good girl ought not to have.

Every few days, Loupe would come into the Thermes Caldarium. He'd smile at Marie with his red lips bright in the neatly trimmed black of his beard. He would flirt with his cold smile and eyes. He would say, "Ma Belle," for she was always his beauty, "this town is too old for someone as pretty as you. Don't you itch at it? Don't you sometimes wish it would be buried in snow?" No that wasn't her horrible thought. Her horrible thought was of setting the buildings on fire. "Come up to my home on the mountain. Rip the heart out of life before it covers you in dust."

Sometimes she'd stare at him when he said that. Sometimes she felt the dust covering her in a steady ashen snow.

Sometimes when he went on about seizing the day, she'd tell him that she had to go to the bathroom. She'd hold herself until she grew warm again. Other times, Grandpapa Henri would come in and say, "Monsieur Loupe, have you come for a treatment? Perhaps a colonic irrigation with the healing waters?"

It was always something to do with the bowls with Loupe.

One day, he leaned close and breathed in. He brushed his fingers along her neck. "Ma Belle, you smell lovely today."

She moved away from him. She wiped her forehead with the sweat from mopping the floor. "I'm not wearing perfume." She couldn't have said why she imagined slicing him open from belly to throat. She could see his blood spilling on the black and white tiles and mixing with the mud of the street. She could imagine him bending her over the front desk and knocking aside the daisies in their vase. She could feel the press of him against her just as she could feel the drip of his hot blood.

"Then that delightful smell is the essence of you." Loupe winked at her. "Please, Ma Belle. Put me out of my misery. Come visit me in my little village. Such a pretty girl as you should come dance a little. Crack the bones of life and suck out the marrow."

As he said this, Marie was busy staring out the storefront.

In the plaza, a carriage of gold and glass pulled by six matching white horses clattered down the street. Each of horses' heads was decorated with white ostrich plumes. Marie tumbled out the front door to stare.

Visitors didn't arrive in a horse and carriage. Lost tourists might struggle out of their cars. Revelers from Loupe's mountain might come down to buy wine. They weren't handed out of carriages by a liveried footman.

The woman who emerged was old. Even across the square, Marie could see the lines on her face. The stoop in her walk. Her brilliant silver hair made a halo around her head in the sun. Diamonds glittered on her arms. She wore a golden silk bustled dress some thirty years out of date. Marie breathed in. "She's like a Grande Dame in a book."

Loupe laughed his gunshot laugh. "You think so do you?"

Marie held her mop against her body. She watched the woman make her way into the Grande Hotel.

Behind her, Loupe said, "I've ordered a new car. You should try it out. We could drive up to my house on the mountain and you could see how fast it tears the curves."

Marie rubbed the top of the mop against her forehead. She thought about cracking it down on Loupe's skull until it cracked and splintered and his brains lay pink on the floor. She thought about shoving him against the front desk and using it in him. Growing up in a place that gave enemas from the waters lent itself to those kinds of thoughts. She stood there and watched the plaza.

The woman had come out again. She was walking slowly across the plaza to the Thermes Caldarium. Marie quickly went behind the front desk.

As the bell rang the woman's entry, Loupe smiled his winter smile. "My Lady, as there's no one else to do it, it seems a foolish thing for us to remain strangers. Loupe de Guerre."

The woman held out her white gloved hand as if to be kissed. "What a charming man you are. Comtesse Melusine de L'Eau." She smiled with pale lined lips. She could have been ugly, as age could render so many a face, but she was too alive to be ugly. Her nose was wide and flat, and her skin a deep golden weathered brown. Her eyes bulged slightly from her face, but they looked at Marie so knowing and clear. As bright as sunlight on a lake.

Marie was still staring while Loupe took the Comtesse's hand. "That's quite the large estate that you have." Loupe turned her hand and kissed the place where her glove exposed her wrist.

"It is both deep and wide." Her laugh sounded like rain on a rooftop in the summer with a hiss of heat in the meeting. "What I love most about age is I can invite all the young men to my table as I please. Monsieur de Guerre, would you be interested in joining me for dinner later? You simply must come. I won't take no for an answer."

Loupe pressed her hand to the fold of his black coat over his heart. "Then I simply must."

He nodded to Marie. "See, that is how one accepts an invitation. Until next we meet, Ma Belle."

Grandpapa Henri came out as the bell announced Loupe's exit. He took in the diamonds and the silk. He asked, "Has My Lady come to take waters? Perhaps you have come for a treatment. We feature all the most modern ways to take the waters."

The Comtesse patted his hand. "I am only here for the baths." The Comtesse smiled such a roguish smile and winked at Marie, who blushed so charming was her expression.

On the strength of that blush and looking at the Comtesse, so old and frail, Marie felt that she had to say, "It's very hot down there, my Lady. Are you sure that you wouldn't be better off visiting the Tepidarium across the street?"

The sound of children splashing in the covered pool was easy to hear.

Grandpapa Henri hissed, "Marie!"

The Comtesse waved her hands. "No, no, that is very sweet of you. But I love the heat. My only request is that I simply must have the place to myself and cannot be disturbed at my bath. Is that something that you can accommodate me with." She opened her purse and the sum of crisp new francs that she brought out more than had Grandpapa Henri agreeing to leave the entire place to the Comtesse.

Marie went down into the baths to put up oil lamps in the wall niches.

She walked the way that she had gone all her life from the moment she was a tottering babe being led by her Papa. She looked in the opening into the dark river that raced next to the passage way. She lit the oil lamp that sent a faint glow out over the dark water. The river roared its familiar roar. She imagined herself climbing through the opening and tumbling down that dark way into battered bones and starved lungs. She pushed down horrible thoughts.

She went down the long tunnel away from the river setting the oil lamps on their niches. The air grew hotter and hotter as she went from old stonework to marble and then into old Roman tiles.

The tile cornucopias dripped as they always did under the steady oil light.

She lit the way down the corridor of the satyrs and the nymphs at their sport. One satyr held his prick in his hand. It was the length of his torso and red. She blushed to see it. She always blushed to see it. As she blushed at a bare breasted nymph bending before another satyr, whose prick was well hidden from view. When she'd been little, she'd asked her Mapa what was happening on the wall. Mama'd only seen the cornucopias. As far as she knew, Marie was the only one to see the nymphs and the satyrs. One more thing that was bubbling up wrong with her

She also blushed because it was hot down in the tunnels. Close as she was to the hot spring.

She unbuttoned her blouse. Marie brushed the tips of her fingers along the grooves in the wall to keep herself steady. She continued her descent.

She opened the door to the steam room. It was so hot that the hair in her nose curled up to get away from the heat. She lit the enclosed oil lamp that swayed and shadowed from the ceiling. She lit the lamps in their niches past the fall of cold water diverted from that dark river. She ran a hand under the flow and crossed the stream that it made.

She opened the door onto the Caldarium itself. Her lamp ringed golden rounds of light over the large and the small pool. As she put up the glass lamps, the green tiles flecked with gold glowed as they always did. On the walls, tiled sea gods and great serpents disported themselves as the water in the pools reflected on the dripping walls. Steam snaked fingers up from the water and clutched at her. More images that only she saw in the tiles.

She returned to where the Comtesse waited.

Marie had hoped to be asked to help her undress, to see the Comtesse's clothes up close, but that was just another of her horrible thoughts and about someone so old. In any case, the Comtesse simply smiled and went alone into the earth.

Marie kept herself busy doing the plumbing repairs upstairs.

Hours later, when the Comtesse emerged, her cheeks were flushed and Grandpapa Henri said, "My Lady, why you look ten years younger. Why you could almost be Marie's age." She didn't look that, but her shoulders seemed straighter and certainly less frail.

The Comtesse laughed. "Kind of you to say so." The bell rang merrily as she went out the door. Even her walk was a little quicker as she disappeared in the Grande Hotel.

Marie made her return journey into the earth to collect the oil lamps and clean the pools if they needed it. She came to the Caldarium.

There was something floating in the water.

She scooped her net into the water and pulled a pale scatter of small disks. They were a little larger than a centime. Each was as thin as the shell of a cicada after the leaves had fallen. They were brittle. One broke in half as she touched it. She was gentler after that. She gathered as many as she could from the pool. She returned the room to darkness then.

She did not know quite why, but she buried the scales in the earth under the apple tree. She buried them deep among the roots. It was hard work and her back ached before she was done, but she did it because for once it was not a horrible thought. It was simply odd.

She took her own cold bath then. She went to see if she could see the Comtesse at her dinner.
Loupe was sitting next to her with his too smart clothes and too sharp smile.

When Loupe and the Comtesse strolled from the Grande Hotel arm in arm, she had the thought that perhaps the Comtesse meant to kill Loupe. She followed if only to convince herself that they merely meant to stroll. Or in case the Comtesse needed help disposing of the body. A horrible thought. They were merely walking

She'd lived in Vita-les-bains all her life. She knew all the places to hide. She even had a spot in mind to hide Loupe's body. She'd imagined dozens of spots.

But the Comtesse didn't pull a small gun from her sleeve. There was no knife. She walked with Loupe down into the park along the river before it went underground.

They spoke and it was of nothing. They spoke of the weather in winter and the wind on the vast dark sea.

Despite their tone, she lingered on the idea of a murder in the woods of the man who had made so many bullets and bombs and barbed wire to catch good soldiers dying in the mud. Surely that wouldn't be so horrible.

They strolled deeper and deeper into the park. Until they came to a small gazebo, it's flaking paint hidden in the gloom. The Comtesse spread her skirts out as if she were taking in a concert. Loupe sat next to her. He held her hand. He whispered in her ear. The Comtesse laughed and it sounded like a babbling brook high in the hills on Easter morning. Perhaps now she would kill Loupe.

But no, he unlaced the ribbons of her old fashioned dress knot by knot. She didn't strike him for his liberties. She leaned back as he pulled her wrinkled breasts from her dress and kissed them one and the other. Marie stood horrified. She was afraid to move. She went a little closer to get a better view.

Loupe was lifting the Comtesse's skirts now. He said, "You have too many clothes."

The Comtesse laughed again and the sound was of a waterfall. "It is time to shed this skin."

Loupe, he took liberty upon liberty. Until finally he turned the Comtesse round. She braced herself on the old wood of gazebo as he took her from behind as if she were a common doxy. As if she were the nymph on the tiled wall impaled for eternity on a prick the length of her body.

The force of his motion was enough to shake the gazebo. Marie feared that it would collapse upon them. Marie feared he would break the Comtesse, old as she was.

She wanted the gazebo to collapse on Loupe as he moved in the Comtesse. She imagined the crack of his bones.

As she thought that, he looked over his shoulder and grinned at the dark. Marie stood very still. She did not move. Not even when the Comtesse cried out in a tumble of words that Marie could not understand. She sounded like the dark river rushing to the sea.

Not even when Loupe roared at the night. The gazebo did not collapse. Loupe bent to whisper to the Comtesse, who crumpled to the ground. He abandoned her. He laughed like an animal and he left her there all alone.

The Comtesse did not move. What if the Comtesse was hurt. What if she were injured. Marie crept forward. The Comtesse opened her eyes. "Oh, hello, Ma Petite." She beckoned. "Come here."

Marie climbed up into the gazebo. She asked, "Are you hurt?"

The Comtesse smiled with smudged lips and a flick of her red, red tongue. "A sweet hurt, if I am and one I requested besides. Come here. Sit beside me."

Marie sat down beside her. The Comtesse put her arm around Marie and squeezed. "Ma Petite, you're worried over what you have just seen."

There was no answer for that. Marie nodded. The Comtesse kissed her cheek. She kissed it softly as a Grandmama might. A little rough and chapped. These were not young lips. She kissed a little lower. Then a little lower and Marie squeaked. "Comtesse!"

"I think you should call me Melusine." Her kisses went lower still and then a sharp bite as if a great many very sharp teeth pricked and plucked at Marie's skin. Marie moaned. "Shh, Ma Petite. We are all friends here in the dark."

Marie squeaked as the buttons of her dress were undone one by one. "I'm a good girl." It was a lie. She'd imagined this with so many strangers. So many times.

"I rarely concern myself with good." Melusine laughed against her skin, a rumble like the river flowing under the earth. Marie found herself shimmied from her dress and the clothes underneath. She found herself laid on the wood bare to the hands and lips and pricking pulling teeth of Melusine. "How simply wonderful that you came to me and did not follow him at all." Melusine's tongue slid between Marie's lower lips parting them. Marie closed her eyes, because surely that would make this stop. She did not want it to stop. "He was so certain that you would follow him like a bitch in heat." Another slide of a flicking tongue. "That you would finally follow him up to his cold mountain." Her tongue slid again. Melusine's tongue pushed into her farther than she would have thought it could. It burned. It took her apart as it went. Marie gave way to fire.

As she lay dazed after, the Comtesse gathered her up and put her back together. "Loupe thinks you are the same under the skin. But he's young. He doesn't see that you're not his kind at all." She offered Marie her hand. "However, stay away from Loupe if I am not there. You're only a little one as yet."

Marie nodded. She was too spun round to do other than nod and clutch her hand to the places where Melusine's teeth had caught.

They strolled in the dark arm and arm and parted at the Grande Hotel. Melusine winked at Marie. "Until tomorrow."

Marie went home. She stared at herself in her small mirror. Her body was covered in a trail of red welted marks. They looked more like burns that bites. Each welt was swollen and hard to the touch. She touched herself briefly where Melusine had given her the most intimate kiss and flinched. She felt swollen there too. She quickly scrubbed herself clean with cold water and knelt for her prayers.

She prayed to Mary Mother of Christ for intercession for her wickedness.

She dreamed of burning water and falling skies.

In the morning, she went to open up the Thermes Caldarium to be aired. It was early. Not yet nine by the town clock on the square.

She did not expect to see Melusine sitting on one of the benches in the plaza, smoking a black cigarette in long plumes of smoke.

Melusine smiled at her. "You seem surprised to see me." She gestured with the hand that held the cigarette, "but you will find that I am a morning person, and as old as I am, I do not sleep much at all." She stood up. "I am eager to take the waters. Will you let me in?"

Marie nodded. She blushed. She felt the fire of the previous night burning in her belly and up into her cheeks. But the previous night seemed nothing but an illusion. Certainly there was none of it in Melusine's manner or her sunlight colored eyes.

Marie went down into the baths and lit the oil lamps.

As she returned, Melusine was chatting pleasantly with Grandpapa Henri.

As on the previous day, she paid to have the place to herself while Grandpapa Henri rubbed his hands at this good fortune. Marie hoped that she would be offered to join Melusine in her bath, but she only smiled at Marie, put out her cigarette and went down into the earth.

Marie went about her chores. As she cleaned the tray that Grandpapa Henri had set aside for the gentleman's ashes, she noticed that Melusine's cigarette was completely unburned. It appeared to not even be lit. She wasn't sure why, but she kept it. She put it in her keepsake's box along with Papa's watch and the picture of Mama and Papa from before the Great War.

When Melusine emerged some hours later, Grandpapa Henri said, "My Lady, the waters are doing wonders for you."

It was true. The lines along her mouth seemed less deep. The flesh around her eyes and chin was a little firmer. She said, "Yes, I have really waited too long to return."

She turned to Marie, "Would you do an old woman a kindness, and after I've taken my lunch and my rest, would you walk with me to keep me company?"

Marie looked to Grandpapa Henri with his eyes fairly bugged out of his head that yes she should accept the offer of the wealthy old woman for a walk.

Marie nodded and it was decided.

As before she went into the Caldarium to clean and put out the lights. As before, she fished a net of glittered scales. They were a deeper hue than those from before. They were thicker too. As before, she buried them at the roots of the apple tree.

She put out the lights and fussed over her hair before she had to race to meet Melusine.

The streets of her town seemed different as she walked upon Melusine's arm. The mayor tilted his hat at them, and even Elizette, the butcher's wife, who wore nothing but the latest in fashion from Paris, smiled.

As they turned back around and came to the Grande Hotel, Melusine smiled with her lips that seemed so much fuller than the day before. "Ma Petite, would you like to come up for some refreshment?"

It was an innocent enough question, but it was clear in Melusine's gaze what she meant. Marie felt something burning inside of her, clawing to get out. Horrible thoughts flashed inside of her. She nodded. "Yes." She cleared her throat to control the squeak in her voice. "Yes, please."

They went up to Melusine's rooms and Marie found herself peeled from her clothes and laid out upon the wide soft bed with sheets far finer than were upon her own. Melusine's sharp teeth pricked and pulled on Marie's skin as Marie tugged at Melusine's dress. "Won't you be," she trailed off, flushing for all that she was bare as the day she was born and Melusine was entirely dressed. Even her long silver hair was still caught up in an elegant twist. Her tongue was busy at work on Marie's breast.

"Not today, Ma Petite." Melusine continued what she was at. She took Marie apart.

Melusine walked Marie down into the lobby and fitted a curl of her short hair behind her ear. There, they met Loupe prowling about the soft carpet. He kissed Melusine's hand. "As lovely as autumn's glory."

"And here is the spring." As he took Marie's hand, he turned it and lightly nipped at her wrist. His mouth was cold. She imagined a winter storm blowing down out of the mountains and freezing off her skin until her wrist cracked. But then she might grow a new hand with long curved claws to seize Loupe's throat and make him bleed.

Loupe squeezed her hand. "Ma Belle, what can I do to convince you to run away to see my home? You're far too young for such a dusty old town. Rip away its influence and kick up your feet."

She blinked at her own tumbled horrible thoughts and pulled her hand away. "Good day. I have to," she fled.

Marie went into St. Swithun's and knelt under the stained glass windows casting wheels of color on the stone floor. She prayed to Mary Mother of God to intercede for her.

Intercession was not forthcoming.

In the days that followed, Loupe and Melusine were a scandal that delighted the town.

Yolande, who was the maid at the Grande Hotel, said, "About the only place he's not thrust his way in is into her bed. Why the other day, I heard them banging away in the wardrobe with a great deal more vigor than I'd have expected from such an old woman."

Martin scoffed over his cigarette. "She's not as old as all that. Been ill is all. Why just last night, I saw her take Loupe in her mouth behind St.Swithun's. Gave me a new appreciation of taking the waters," he winked at Marie, who was not listening. Who had not heard a single word about herself and Melusine, and why would they when there was Loupe and Melusine to gossip about.

Marie closed her eyes and prayed at the burning heat and cold in her belly. But as she tried to think on Mother Mary, she saw herself behind St. Swithun's. With her mouth, licking into Melusine or taking Loupe. She also saw Martin and Yolande sprawled in their own blood. Horrible.

Every morning, Melusine came to take her bath. Every day she seemed younger. When Grandpapa Henri said that she could be Marie's age, it seemed it could almost be true. Each day the decades peeled back from her flesh. Each day the styles that she wore grew more and more youthful.

Each day, Melusine said, "Marie, would you do me the honor of a promenade after I have had my lunch and my rest?"

Each day, there were deeper and thicker scales glittering in the dark to be buried under the apple tree.

Each day, they walked. Each day, that soft bed and the prick of sharp teeth pulling at her skin and leaving a trail of swollen bites.

Each day, Loupe waited in the lobby with his smile and teased her about his mountain.

Marie could barely stand it. She trembled with a horrible pain in her center as if something was trying to crawl out. She meant to say no. She always meant to say no. The fading welts over her body should make her say no. Her collection of unburned cigarettes should make her say no. Her fear of what she was under her skin should make her say no.

She managed it once. In any case, Grandpapa Henri was no longer so pleased with the Comtesse now that she was such a scandal for all he smiled at her money.

She held off until the sun was dipping over the hills above.

She ran to the Grande Hotel and pounded on Melusine's door. Melusine answered and gathered her in. "Oh, Ma Petite, next time don't wait so long." She took her apart again with plucks of her sharp, sharp teeth and long licks of her tongue.

As always, Loupe waited in the faded lobby of the Grande Hotel. Marie found herself at dinner with them. She meant to say no, and found herself saying yes.

She'd never drunk champagne before. Loupe said, "A woman should only drink champagne. It is the only beverage that makes a woman more beautiful."

"Hardly original." Melusine bit into a flake of baked fish.

Loupe ignored her. "Ma Belle, visit me in my home. Tonight. I will throw a party in your honor." His red lips gleamed in his neat black beard. She imagined sharp teeth in her mouth ripping at the white throat under that beard. She could taste the blood. His smile widened. "We're the same under the skin. Come with me now and you'll know it."

Melusine rapped her fork across the back of his hand. "Stop plaguing, Ma Petite. I've told you, she's nothing like you."

Marie took another sip of champagne, flushed with her own horrible thoughts. In that moment, Marie decided that she would go to the mountain. She would find out who she was.

But without his knowing. Without telling either of them.

She set out in the evening, while he went for his post prandial outdoor entertainment with Melusine.

She rode her bicycle down the road and across three valleys. The moon was high in the sky. She followed the white trail it made upon the road.

She propped her bicycle against the great wall outside Langres-sur-montagne. She went in one of the old arched gates. She walked through the streets thronged with beautiful people in short sharp clothes with slurred faces.

The fountain in the plaza frothed and bubbled. A woman lay in it clutching a bottle of absinthe. The moon shone on her pale breasts and laughing face. Marie thought horrible thoughts of other things that could fill that fountain. Of the way her teeth could grind and pull at those pale breasts.

She took a sudden dislike to the moon as it reflected on the beaded dresses and the empty bottles. She flinched from groping fingers.

She came to the great house at the center. She could hear the screams of the wild party all around her.

She crept in the back door. It was unlocked. There were no revelers there.

She had imagined a charnel house. That is not what she found. She found a battlefield. She found herself in a long endless trench of sucking mud and rats and dead bodies in various states of decay. The air was thick with mustard gas and she burned. She was on fire. She found herself in no man's land with rilled and torn earth. She heard the screams of horses and the steady cough of the guns.

She coughed. She fell to her knees. Her arms caught on barbed wire. She struggled until she wrenched herself free. What held her broke free as well. A human hand with a dull wedding band.

The front doors, for there were in fact doors, opened and Loupe came in. He had a woman under one arm and a fair haired man under the other. They were drunk. They stumbled on the mud and giggled. "Quite," the man hiccupped, "a mess you got here, Loupe."

The woman played with a feather in her hair with the tip of a bottle. "You should ought to clean up in here." She tumbled over the haunch of a horse and fell. Her legs splayed in the air, her short fringed skirt around her hips.

Loupe smiled wide. "What a wonderful idea." He breathed in and grinned. "Is that you, Marie? Are you finally here, Ma Belle? Come out and crack the bones of life. We'll suck its marrow together." With the tip of his finger, he slit the man's neck and blood poured. The woman screamed.

Marie ran.

She heard the sound of guns screaming behind her. She ran very quickly.

Her feet stuck to the ground as she went. Even out of the trenches. Even on the cobblestones of the streets outside.

She looked back. She was leaving a trail of bloody footsteps. She threaded her way through the red faced revelers. The roar of engines behind her should have been warning enough to run.

She ran to her bicycle. That at least left no trace on the pale road as the moon set behind the hills and the sun turned the tree tops pink. She had been the whole night.

She pedaled as fast as she could, but the road stretched before her. Her mind tumbled with her pedaling wheels trying to form the words of what she should say.

Behind her, dulled by the thick walls of Langres-sur-montagne, screams mingled with the howl of the wind from the mountains.

She pedaled faster.

Behind her, the trees shook in the roar of wind. She heard a tree crash. She pedaled as fast as her lungs and burning legs would let her. She fairly flew and yet the long road stretched through the woods. The climb up the hills was steeper and the way down switch backed between dark thickets.

Finally, she came over the last hill and bent into it. She raced down the incline. She came into Vita-les-bains. By the clock on the tower, it was after nine. Melusine would already be at the baths. Marie threw down her bicycle. She rushed to the old gate that let in the side door. She almost dropped the old black key on its ring. The lock was so rusty. She had to use both hands to turn the key.

The wind in the forests on the mountains above the town roared like winter in summer.

Marie ran down the steps that went down into the earth. She ran past the river. She ran down the long stifling hall.

She threw up the door into the Caldarium. She held out the torn hand with its ring. "Melusine." She stopped.

Melusine lay against the far side of the pool, her arms over the old tiled edge.

Melusine and not Melusine. Her skin gleamed with a myriad tiny bronze and gold scales that broadened as they went down her body. Where her silver hair had been, now silver barbs and spikes spiraled from her head. A wide stretch of webbed wings spread up from her back. The gold barbs on their upper tips grazed the dripping ceiling. Below the surface of the slowly steaming water, the green tiles of the pool slipped in and out of view as shifting brilliant coils twisted beneath the surface.

From across the pool's wide expanse. Melusine blew a long tongue of flame that popped in a puff of smoke. "Ma Petite, I asked not to be disturbed at my bath."

The well sprung door clicked closed behind her. She was still holding out hand with its ring to show Melusine, who moved smoothly forward across the surface of the pool as if she were walking on water. She plucked the hand from Marie. She licked it with a barbed tongue. "Oh, Ma Petite. I told you to stay away from Loupe if I was not there." She tisked.

Through doors and long corridors, there was a roar. It did not sound like the river. It did not sound like trees.

Melusine stood taller, her long body spilling out of the pool. "You may wish to get behind me, Ma Petite." She brushed Marie's cheek with her hand and a loop of her picked Marie up and deposited her on the farthest bench.

The door slammed open.

Loupe stood breathing heavily at the door. Loupe and not Loupe. Naked and covered in fur for one. He was taller. His chest broader. His face had shifted and grown long at the jaw. Only to be filled with sharp white teeth. His arms ended in sickle like yellow claws. She should have stared there, but found herself staring at his groin. The satyr would have been jealous. He snarled. "She's been in my house. She's mine." A long line of saliva extended slick from his jaw to reach the floor.

Melusine flicked a wing slowly. "Remind me whose teeth have pricked Ma Petite's skin? You've had months to woo. She came to me. She raced to me from your home. She's nothing akin to you."

Marie pressed against the far wall. Water dripped over her shoulders and into her hair.

Loupe howled. He sprang forward. Melusine struck him such a blow that the wall cracked when he hit it. "Careful, this is the original tile and would be difficult to replace."

Loupe rolled and slashed at Melusine's nearest twist. She screamed. They fought like, Marie's imagination failed to conjure a sufficient word. She could only watch as bright blood splattered the ancient tiles. As they grappled and slashed and bit and struggled and steam rose from the ancient water. Marie's heart was cold and she was hot and her skin burned. She pressed her fingers against the hard welt of Melusine's bites.

Just as it seemed they would go on forever, it was done. Melusine tightened in spirals around Loupe. Marie could hear bones creaking as he struggled. Melusine said, "Can you be more calm now? Nothing has been lost." She tightened in a sudden crack.

Loupe whimpered. He exhaled. "Yes."

Melusine loosened him. What followed then was not battle. She licked at his face with a tongue of flame that hissed into frost. They rolled in their own blood. They slid into the pool. Moving together. It was. They were. It was not fighting.

They were between her and the door, but they were distracted. She should leave. She stayed glued to her wall.

A scaled loop brushed her cheek and slid further down to where her blouse gaped open. Marie sighed.

Melusine twisted round to look at her. "Ma Petite?" She was so beautiful. Loupe with his teeth was in her arms. Doing. He was. He was rutting against the long line of her.

Marie took a step forward. She did what she shouldn't do. She kissed Melusine and let herself be wrapped in a wide warm wing that pricked at her face with its thorns.

Melusine said, "Now, Ma Petite, it's time to shed your skin." Marie whimpered. Her clothes were peeled off.

Marie gave herself over to being taken apart.

Floating in the hot water, it was hard to tell what were scales and claws. Loupe's prick, she could tell the prick. Melusine had been right. That was sweet pain.

Also, Melusine had been right about Marie. She and Loupe were nothing alike under the skin.

It was a three day wonder. Langres-sur-montagne was consumed in a great fire. Drunks and fools should not play with matches it was agreed.

Melusine left Vita-les-bains in a long white Peugeot that roared with power. She was dressed now in a yellow beaded dress of the latest style that glittered in the morning sun.

Marie left for Paris with Melusine. She left her Grandpapa Henri yelling after her that she would come to no good.

It was perhaps true.

When Marie finally returned, it was years and years later. Her skirts were a little old fashioned, but then so was she.

She came to Vita-les-bains and no one knew her. But she allowed herself to be given the tour of the Thermes Caldarium.

In the end, she gave the proprietor a large cheque because she quite simply had to have the place all to herself. She winked at the proprietor's son, newly graduated from school, his skin crackling from eating apples from a tree whose roots fed upon dragon's scales.

She winked and she went down into the earth for her bath. To renew what was under her skin.