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The Singing Bird

 

        A siren stares back at me through midnight water. Her sun darkened complexion is slashed with a bright blend of tangerine and crimson from the last slowly sinking rays of daylight. It filters through her pale blue eyes, giving them an iridescent glow, beckoning me to lean further over the flooded, wooden deck of the Danu. I lie flat on my stomach and stare at her rippling hair as it dances all around her like carnelian seaweed. We only have a few more minutes before she disappears and I am left with the spray of salt water. Sometimes I am tempted to follow her back into the wine-dark water of the Mediterranean, down into the murky underworld swaying beneath me. Sometimes I think if only I’d had more time, if only I could’ve held my breath forever, maybe it would be my father humming along to “My Singing Bird” instead of her. The Captain’s voice overpowers everyone’s and I guess it makes sense that his voice is a lot like my father’s. I can hear the same sturdiness, the same sadness, as he sings,

If I could lure my singing bird

From his own cozy nest

If I could catch my singing bird

I would warm him on my breast.

For there’s none of them can sing so sweet

My singing bird as you.

      But I remember how my father’s voice had warmed the air around us, crackling like fire in the dark. It was the deep roll of thunder and the gentle slap of saltwater against the hull of the ship. It contained all I had ever known of family and trust and home.

     The siren says nothing. Maybe she can’t speak, or maybe she never wanted to learn the languages of men. She doesn’t need words anyhow, only music. She can transform any string of notes into a song of seduction, which even the Captain, a man with a will like iron, wouldn’t be able to resist. Once a siren has planted the kiss of death on the chapped lips of a sailor, he would forget the round face of his newborn daughter, his wife’s endearing smile, the earthy smell of his mother’s kitchen. He would lose the fear of never seeing light again as she pulls him over the side of the ship like a sack of stale onions, because in her eyes, in that moment, he is immortal, and that is what all men long to be.

        She hums softly now, a swirling melody of vowels and consonants, careful not to rouse the anxiety of the crew. They still haven’t forgiven me for what they believe was a suicide attempt. I am constantly catching them peering over their shoulders, stealing glances from across the deck, always on edge, always watching me. As soon as we arrived at the port city of Alexandria, the Captain had his first mate buy me a handmaiden at the slave market, so that I’d never be left by myself. As soon as I saw her, eyes downcast, shaking and malnourished, I knew she would be too afraid or too grateful to the Captain to hold onto any of my secrets. Ezra is more informant than friend, and I knew I would never be able to leave my room without her trailing behind, breathing down my neck. While half the crew was ashore, I snuck into the Captain’s medicine bag and took a vial of Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium. There were dozens of bottles, all no longer than my pinky finger and about as big around as the head of a nail. The Captain used it for everything from settling an upset stomach to a calming a splitting headache, and especially when insomnia kept him from his dreams. Every afternoon, I slip a few drops of opium into Ezra’s tea and it isn’t five minutes before she starts feeling tired and I say that I could use a little nap too and she goes to sleep and I contemplate how to make the siren tell me what she knows.

       It’s been six months since we left London, seven since they fished me out of the sea, five times as long since father went missing. They think I will try again, they watch me watching the sea, mistaking my glazed expression for an inconsolable emptiness, but really, I’m just thinking about what i’ll say to the siren at sundown. No one has bothered to ask me what I was really doing last September when I jumped into the abyss and no one cares to ask me why I keep my eyes glued to the sea. Maybe it’s better that they don’t ask. I don’t know what I’d tell them if they did, no one really believes in sirens. All I know is that right after my father evaporated like condensation from my life, the siren showed up and reappears on the days when the sky is clear, waiting just below the surface until the sun slides down my back and dissolves into the sea. I have promised, crossed my heart and swore on the Bible, on my mother’s grave, on my citizenship as an English woman, that I would never tempt death again. Even though nothing could be further from the truth, as far as my trying to kill myself goes, I won’t make the mistake of going with her again. I remember what it was like to sink beneath the surface, the waves burying me deeper and deeper until the sun is no more than a single, bright dot in the darkness surrounding me. Maybe people who are desperate to escape, think that they can have all their memories, all the hurt, bled out of them by the weight of millions of gallons of water. Maybe they think they will forget, that the water will erase everything, even the sound of their own heartbeat. And maybe it does.

      The siren nods her head, or maybe the gentle slosh of water against the ship only makes it look like she’s nodding. Her eyes are wide, her expression is stoic. Can she hear my thoughts? Is she agreeing with me, or merely playing at being sympathetic? What do you know? What do you want? I direct my questions toward her, but her expression doesn’t change. Maybe she doesn’t have the answers. Maybe she’s just a pawn in all this. I shake my head at how ridiculous that sounds. She has to know. Why else would she have followed the Danu on it’s way to pick up another load of spices from Egypt? She’s not doing this because she wants to be my friend. I can’t help a bitter smile from touching my lips. Sirens don’t care who they hurt, I learned that the hard way. It seems much more likely that all my frustration and worry is amusing to her. She will probably go home to her father when the sun goes down and they will laugh at what Tirrian, the pathetic human girl said today.

          Part of me wants to believe that when she promised she would take me to my father, it was true.  Her eyes said trust me, over and over, I know your father, so I let her take my hand. I slipped into the water, as quick as a shadow, letting her pull me down until all I could hear was the sound of my heart, thundering against every nerve in my body. I remember that she was smiling, I felt her frozen lips curve up against the base of my neck. And then everything went still.

       Thinking about the attack makes me shudder and touch the scar on my right shoulder. It’s in the shape of an unblinking eye, two perfect ovals, where two jagged rows of teeth pierced my skin down to the bone. I didn’t think it could get any more uncanny, but I was wrong. The scar glows when she’s near. I was terrified that I was slowly becoming one of them, that Ezra would see the faint light that seeps through my chemise and camisole and dress at sunset, and she would tell the Captain. I would be burned as a witch or fed to the sea god, without ever knowing what happened to my father. Most of the crew already thinks I’m more trouble than I’m worth. Even the Captain has said it’s bad luck to have women on the ship. I wonder if that’s just something men say to keep women hidden from the rest of the world, or if the Captain knows something that he’s unwilling to share with the rest of us.

       The sun crawls back behind the gently sloping sand dunes, just beyond the bustling port of Alexandria, and touches the surface of the water. Her face starts to flicker like the delicate embers in the brass lanterns that line the upper deck of the ship, swaying back and forth in the light wind.

       “Tell me,” I plead. “ Where is he?” With one last mischievous look, she sinks into the night. My stomach drops, I’ve seen that look before. I have just enough time to inch away from the railing before a  rogue wave slams into the ship, turning it half on its side. Saltwater is forced up my nose and down my throat, and I am floating, lifted off the deck by a massive, watery hand. Everything is happening so quickly, one of the crew is washed overboard, men are shouting, screaming, running, sliding, being swallowed whole by the sea. I propel my body down and  helplessly latch onto the slick railing before I am swept away. I am not ready to go back. I won’t go back. The waves are pulsing beneath the ship like my erratic heartbeat and I remember the feeling of being slowly suffocated by the siren’s icy, bony fingers. I squeeze my eyes shut, after five years of seafaring, the salt still burns them. My hair is a mass of black ink swirling around my face and my nightdress clings to me like a pale shadow. Another rush of blue rocks the ship, ripping the railing out of my hands, slamming my body into the mast. A cloud of scarlet pools around my head and the salt is burning my lungs and my throat, I have to take another breath. I kick my legs until I feel warm air on my cheeks, I wipe the salt from my eyes and cough up what has to be a pint of water. There is just enough light from the port that I can make out a shape swimming toward me.

      “Captain?” All I hear is a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around the nearest lantern on the dock, we are so close now. “Ezra?” When the shape is only a yard away, I can make out a sleek triangular appendage on its back, I imagine the metallic silver of its skin would be beautiful when reflecting the moonlight, but there is no moon. There are only the half lit lanterns scattered around the dock on empty barrels and crates, swinging from driftwood signs distinguishing the various stalls of venders and slave merchants.

       I’m hallucinating. They don’t exist, they can’t exist. I hear my mother’s voice from what seems like a lifetime ago, leave her alone, Cooper, you’ll scare her with all your talk of Sirens and other fictitious devils. My father smiled and brushed a loose curl off my forehead. Not to worry, he’d said, our little singing bird is brave. It lifts its head out of the water, pale blue eyes bore into mine. My heart is lurching against my chest so hard I fear it might burst through. This is my siren, my devil, my father’s only hope. The beast unhinges its jaws and swivels its head so close to my face that I can smell the centuries of death and rot on its breath.

     “Tell me,” I say, my voice surprisingly strong in the face of so many rows of teeth. It makes a sort of choking noise that I think must be a laugh.

    “Tu pertinax,” it hisses in a language as old as the gods,“Pater tuus habitat in infernum.” Its voice is thick and wet and dark, like tar, oozing through my body slowly, starting in my head and trickling down my insides like hot candle wax. I close my eyes and wait for it to devour me whole, but the beast sinks back into the sea without another word and the Danu is uprighted as if it hadn’t just been on the verge of sinking. Everything is still.

I hold my breath, waiting for the ground to drop out from under us all.

      Something brushes against my leg and I scream with everything in me. The scar on my shoulder glows brighter than ever. Each and every cell in my body shines like I am a star reincarnated, like I held the sun inside my body and every fiber of my being is consumed by fire. It burns the salt out of my pores until I am made of molten rock and ash. I slowly begin to simmer down. The deck is scorched in the shape of a girl and my nightdress is gone. The water is still. The waves are gently rocking the ship like a mother’s hand on the edge of a baby cradle. I hear footsteps rushing towards me. Breathe. Just breathe. I lie very still against the splintering deck, listening, waiting to be dragged into the depths of a watery hell by the siren or the beast. But the only thing creeping across my skin is the warm breeze and I close my eyes to the light and let the darkness pull me under.

               …

          I wake up with my mother’s lavender quilt tucked around me, Ezra’s arm is tossed over her eyes, but I can tell from her breathing that she isn’t sleeping. I untangle myself from the blankets and stretch, before pulling my nightdress over my head and…I stop just short of tossing it in the wicker laundry basket. The nightdress is perfectly crisp and white, it smells a bit like mildew, but that comes with the territory.

       “Ezra,” I shake her arm so she doesn’t know that I know she’s been awake. She pretends to wipe sleep from her eyes, but she sits up quickly.

         “ Miss Hemlock, I send for food now?” She asks in her broken English. I am surprised she has made so much progress in a weeks time. I shake my head and smile kindly so she is more apt to try to answer my questions.

      “What do you remember about last night?” She squints her dark brown eyes until they are half closed and she purses her lips, a deep ‘v’ appears in her dark forehead.

       “I took sleep early and Ezra’s dreams no interest for Miss Hemlock.” She smiles half heartedly and turns away. “I ring for food now,” she says. There’s something she’s not telling me.

     I get dressed quickly, probably missing button holes and tying the wrong laces together, but  I have to speak with the Captain, maybe he can make sense of the beast’s words. I am surprised to find darkness when I climb up the wooden stairs from my cabin. I must have slept all day…I walk over to the railing, trying to pretend I didn’t see a deckhand take a step towards me, and turn my gaze up to the sky, spotting Cancer. The little crab looks so insignificant, one bright cluster of bees, a tiny patch of light on a quilt of infinite darkness. Has it always been that small, I wonder. Half a decade has come and gone since Captain Hemlock gave me my first lesson in the names of the constellations and the ancient mythology behind them. He’d taken my pale hand in his weathered one, and together we’d made sense of the stars. He’d said little, but we hadn’t needed words to trace the contours of Virgo’s lithe body or the gentle swoop of Pisces’ metallic scales.

       My mother once told me, not long after my father disappeared, that the souls of all great men burn forever in the sky. When I’d asked the Captain if he thought that was true, he’d laughed and shook his head. For some maybe, he’d said, but when you’ve been on the sea for as long as I, you’ll find that most souls end up filled with saltwater.

      There is only a handful of white dots for every ten miles of slowly expanding universe, one great man in every ten thousand, one hundred thousand, perhaps. I wonder if the same holds true for women. The Captain always said too much fire will get a man thrown to the mercy of the sea, his body absorbed into the endlessly famished water.

        Ibarra Keller, first mate aboard the Danu, was forced into kitchen duty for being what the Captain called ‘a cheeky devil’. He’d grumbled a bit at first about having to do the chores of a common kitchen rat, but the Captain silenced him with a look that said if you’d rather work in the sea, than on it, by the gods, that could be easily arranged. That night, Keller made the best clam chowder I’ve ever had and Four-Fingered Dunston, the cook, was ready to hand over his grease-stained apron and rusty spoons and barrels of pickles. But to everyone’s dismay, Keller and Dunston had gone back to their ordained positions.

        Keller had it easy, not because he’d been aboard for more than twenty years, but on account of his being an able seaman. The passage of time did not amount to loyalty, only diligence and perseverance branded you worthy in the Captain’s eyes.  Most traitors feed the sea, without so much as a backward glance from the Captain. Prowling the deck from first light to sunset, his brooding gaze flickering from the crew to the black water at will. He sees everything and everyone through the lens of his bronze spyglass, always at arm’s length.

        Over the years, his narrowed gaze has fallen less and less upon me. I’ve become a living part of the ship, a miniscule appendage, not as vital as the brain or heart, maybe a fingernail, a hair, a cell. I’ve become microscopical and yet, I’m the only one who will look him in the eye, but even then he’s searching, always searching. Keller warned me when I first arrived on board that I should never be impertinent with the Captain or he might cut me to the brisket, which meant nothing to me at the time. I guess I’ve never expected to be afraid of him. He is my grandfather, after all.

        The Captain coughs up a slimy wad of phlegm and spits it into a tin bucket near the cabin door behind me. I jump up, “Captain, I…” I don’t want to admit that I am gazing at the stars, wondering if my father is amongst them.

        It doesn’t matter. The Captain is looking up.

    “Look there,” he says, pointing to the stark outline of two embracing brothers. I wonder which is the mortal and which is the demi-god. I grip the railing for support, my hands scraping against the rusted metal. I know if I don’t ask now, I never will. Well, here goes nothing.

    “What do you know about sirens, Captain?” The question comes out in a rushed slur of vowels and consonants, I’m not entirely sure if he even hears me. He spits over the side and cocks his head to the right, a slight grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

        “It’s sirens now, is it?” He barks a laugh. This is a waste of time, he’s mocking me. I start to turn back toward the cabin, but he grabs my arm and pulls me back to the railing. All the laughter is gone from his now grim face. His forehead is creased like an old letter that has been crumpled and thrown away, only to be dug out of the waste basket and read over and over by calloused hands. His mouth is set in a firm line that is slightly lopsided, a result of grinding his teeth together for a little over sixty years. I exhale deeply.

          “Our family has been born and bred on the sea for hundreds of years. I have seen many a strange and evil thing, lass, but last night…” he turned his steely gaze to the sea before continuing. “The demon that spoke to you last night was alive when the world was new, more powerful than any weapon you can imagine. We should all be sleeping at the bottom of the sea.”  I suddenly feel faint. Demon? He just called the siren a demon. I’ve been talking to a demon. I grab onto his arm, determined to stay conscious, Hemlocks are made of stronger stuff. The light blue wool of his coat feels scratchy and damp between my fingers. I’d imagine that it had been a dark navy some twenty years back, but the sea and sun alike have bleached it to match the Captain’s eyes.

          I take another deep breath. “Why is it following me…or us? What does it want?”

     The Captain shrugged, “The gods only know, Tirrian. What did it say to you?” I shake my head, trying to remember exactly what the beast had said. “It spoke in a strange tongue…but I think it said ‘Pater tuus habitat in infernum,’ and then it was gone like a shadow in the sunlight.” He frowns, and then smiles at the rusted metal railing where our hands sit side by side. The color of his knuckles reminds me of an iron poker left in a blazing fire, a molten mixture of white and red. Mine are as pale as sea-foam.

    He turns back to the vast expanse of black water, he seems to be searching for words.

      “We’re leaving Alexandria tonight.” My stomach flip-flopped. We are still a week away from picking up the last shipment of spices. I tried to be as as solid and unflinching as the mighty oak Poseidon carved onto the ship’s starport.

          “You know what the beast said, don’t you?” He smiles again. I’m not sure how I feel about the Captain smiling so much in one night.

     “Not entirely,” he says, “but I know where to find your father.”

      I stare out into the dark ocean. A storm is coming and clouds are gathering around the Danu like vultures around carrion. A rumbling from deep beneath the waves makes the ship tremble and groan. My breath comes out in tiny puffs of white and my skin turns to ice. I wouldn’t have expected anything less than frigid from a November night on the Atlantic, but the clouds feel ominous. The deck is slick with frozen saltwater, nothing is steady, not even the Captain. We’ve been making our way toward the Île du Diable for two months and the ice is as close to land as we can get in mid-ocean. The Captain leans down and puts his jacket around my shoulders, breaking my train of thought.

      “Look, there,” He points to a blue planet racked by violent winds, far away from the warmth of the sun. I know it’s Neptune, but I don’t bother saying it.  I’m tired of looking up, so I turn back to the the island. The mist rising off the frigid water keeps our ship hidden from any watchmen on the shore. Even if they saw us, there wouldn’t be much they could do about it. I’d commend them for rowing out into the shark-infested, black abyss, filled with crosscurrents that could easily flip a small boat and toss it against the jagged coastline like a balled up piece of paper. New shipments arrive daily with men who trusted their secrets to traitorous ears; men with diseases even Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium couldn’t cure; men who would soon die for their silence, or their lamentations. My father is on Devil’s Island, for what, I cannot say. All I know is that when the stars can’t help us find our way, we have to put our trust in sirens and demons, even when they threaten to swallow us whole. The Captain hums a familiar tune and I begin to sing,

I have seen the lark soar high at morn

Heard his song up in the blue

I have heard the blackbird pipe his note

The thrush and the linnet too

But there’s none of them can sing so sweet

My singing bird as you.

–Khirsten Cook

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