The day the sirens came to the island was the day Eli sailed away on my ship with Marion. It was early one morning in mid-winter before the sun had fully risen. I watched from the cliffs while my heart froze in the January air. I watched the sails of the old ship that had once belonged to my grandfather slip away through the line of fog. I was still watching hours later, as the sky was beginning to lighten when the first of the sirens broke through the waves. They stepped out of the tide and onto the sand, claiming the beach for their own. That ship wasn’t the last to leave the island; many others tried to flee when they discovered the newly infested waters, but it was the first ship to ever return.
In the village, they told children stories about the sirens, whispered them at night in the shadows of waning candles. They called them out over breakfast to warn the young ones—and sometimes the old ones—to stay away from the water. Block your ears with wax or cork; close your doors; lock your windows, and keep the children out of the sea. Don’t touch the sand, they told the little ones, it will bury your feet and lock you in place until you’re swept away by the tide. Don’t listen to the seashells or the sirens’ songs will lure you right into their trap. Don’t bother boarding the ships that promise to take you far away from here; if the sirens let you past the fog, they’ll certainly never let you back. The shreds of the supply ships’ sails decorate the rocks that gut them. Then the sirens come, rise to the surface, sing you their songs, slip inside your thoughts and swirl things up, and then they steal you away.
Fairy tales, you scoff. Children’s stories. Cautionary tales. Nothing but a load of mystical, illogical, utterly naïve nonsense. But you are not from this island, and so you do not know. You cannot possibly imagine the sticky-sweet sound of those whispers from the shells you keep in your garden and on the table next to your bed. You shrug away the temptation of the waves tearing away at the threads of your sanity as the moon rises on lonely nights in February. You have never heard the screams of the sailors in the early hours of the morning as they’re dragged beneath the surface, so close to home, so close to being the ones who finally made it back with the food and supplies that ran shorter each day. So close to being the ones to finally free us all from the feeding tank we lived in.
Do these stories make your blood run cold? Well here is one more for you to chew on.
Eleven months passed, eleven months since the two of them slipped away together, stole my boat and sailed off into the night, leaving me there to rot. Eleven months gone and still, I searched the waves each day for a ship I knew wasn’t coming back. Eleven months since the whispers had started. You know how these things go, small towns and all. Friends were few and secrets fewer when the ships didn’t come back anymore and the food was scarce. There was little else to feed on but the gossip and heartbreak of the ocean-obsessed girl on the edge of town. And to think they were friends once, thick as thieves the three of them. A sweet girl that Marion, and dear Eli, such a charmer. Can’t say I’m surprised in the end. Always thought there was something strange about the other one. Strayed much too close to the waves, if you ask me.
Some said I cursed the two of them, trapped them in the shells where they cried for help from my garden each night. It didn’t matter that the real story was much worse, with an old boat we’d planned to steal away on, the three of us, one day when the timing was right. Once upon a time, the villagers might have believed that, but as soon as the first shell appeared on my window ledge they blocked their ears against my voice too. Well anyhow, I suppose he’s never coming back now. Goddamn right he wasn’t coming back, and so help him, if he ever tried, the rocks and the sirens would be the least of his worries.
And what was I doing during these long months? Well, you know the stories, you’ve heard the myths. Out past the fog on high waves and rough seas, the sirens sang and sailors drowned, but the corpses drifted and someone had to clean up the bodies. A gruesome job, yes, no doubt, but a job that needed doing no less, and I was not scared of the sea like the rest of the village. Why should I be? What did I have left to lose? The dead were slimy and silent, but they were one less sneering face in the street.
Each week the ocean purged herself. She’d eaten too much; she was too full and had grown sick. Then the year was almost up, and it was time to release the bodies. One by one she heaved them upon the sand, left them slick with her transparent blood, cold with her kiss. I walked the shore each morning at dawn, searching the faces of the dead, taking their names, and dragging their corpses to the funeral pyres. It was on one of those mornings that I saw the siren walk out of the ocean.
The waves clung to her figure in draping skirts and corset laces. Her skin was white as seafoam, and she shimmered with salt. Her hair was a tangle of black curls and braids, twisted together like the clusters of slippery seaweed hurled upon the sand. The corpses tumbled and churned around her in the tide. She was radiant and cold, and as I took in her lazy grace in the rough December wind, I felt that I understood the rush she and her sisters felt when they brought down the sailors.
The siren stood at the edge of the waves, watching me as the icy water rushed over her pearly, webbed feet. I had only seen the sirens from afar; the closest I’d ever been was that morning, nearly a year ago, watching from the cliffs when they had first arrived. I remembered the blanket of panic that had settled in my stomach when I realized what they were, what it meant that they had come to the island. If my boat had extinguished the small flame of hope I had of leaving that place, the sirens’ arrival had ripped the wick from the candle. Since that day they had never strayed to the beach, never needed to. They had a host of sailors at sea to feast on, and they had no need for me just yet. Maybe I should have known then that something had shifted.
She watched me closely as the bodies washed up with a sickening swish and sucking sound. They rolled in with the tide and lodged themselves in the sand, oozing and seeping and reeking of rust and brine. There were so many of them. So many beautifully pale faces with wide eyes and mouths gaping open with purple, frost-coated lips and lashes. So many faces I’d passed on the village streets, dodged sharp glances and sly smirks, brushed off vicious names and vile rumors spread from their lips. And so many faces I no longer recognized. Brief moments of almost recognition, something sparking in the back of my mind, trying to break free from the hypothermic hold on my memory, but then it slipped away. I didn’t care to call them back.
I looked back to the siren, watching her lips, waiting for them to part, to sing. She’d lock me away, devour my soul, and then spit me back out when she grew tired of the bitter taste I left in her mouth. Ready for a new toy to play with for a while.
When she met my gaze, her lips twitched, quirking slightly into a faint smirk. My stomach lurched and I stepped back. She drifted forward, out of the surf. The flowing blue and white waves of her skirts rippled as she walked, the silky green ribbons of her seaweed corset floated loosely behind her in the brittle winter wind. Could she hear my thoughts? Did she see how scared I was that I might find Eli and Marion’s faces among the dead, and how disappointed I would be if I didn’t?
She took another step, and my gaze dropped to her webbed feet which were flecked with blood. She reached out a hand to me and in her palm was a shell, muddled with blues and greens and speckles of pink. If I held it to my ear, would it be her voice I would hear? I thought of the whispers from the shells in my home, the way they called to me, haunted my dreams, pulled me closer, dragged me under, and inevitably pushed me back onto this wretched beach every day. That shell in her palm hummed louder than all the rest.
I ran then, tearing back up the beach to the village, kicking up wet sand behind me. I didn’t look back to see if she followed until I reached the top of the hill. I looked down and saw her standing exactly as she had been moments ago, halfway down the beach, head tilted up to meet my eyes. Her inky hair was completely still in the storm. She raised a hand that was webbed like her feet, lifted it to her lips, and she blew me a kiss.
The village council laughed when I told them, frowned when I burst through the doors and broke the calm, easy peace of their morning meeting. Brows furrowed, breaths huffed, hands steepled, eyes looked to the ceiling to pray for patience. A siren on the beach, what nonsense, they grumbled. They bring down ships, girl, they don’t wage war on islands that have already surrendered. Give us the list and get out. I wanted to scream, see them cower and cringe. I thought of the rocks and the shells on the beach, thought of breaking them over their heads. I thought of the siren on the sand, of dragging them down the cliffs to her, one by one. A gift to the ocean or a gift to me? What did it matter? I left the list of names of the dead from the beach on the table, and I went home to my cottage on the cliffs and closed my eyes to the sounds of my shells.
I woke up in the night to find her shell humming next to my ear, glowing softly in the darkness. I filled a bath with ice water to soothe my feverish brain, and I listened to the silence, wishing the floor would creak down the hall. If I’d drowned there and then, how long would it have taken someone to find me? I fell back to sleep in the tub until dawn.
The next morning when I arrived at the beach the siren was stretched out on the rocks. I could feel her watching as I made my rounds through the bodies, but she didn’t approach me again.
It took me a moment to see the sails through the thick veil of fog. The ship was anchored several hundred yards out, but I could still make out the name on the side. I stumbled and tripped over something—a leg—and I sprawled on the sand. I blinked hard, twice, but the ship was still there. The siren had abandoned her perch on the rock near the beach.
Hadn’t I dreamt of this? Hadn’t I dreamt of the two of them coming back for me, of this all being some horrible mistake, that none of it was real and they were there to take me away with them? In my head, I saw their faces: Eli’s crooked grin and freckled nose, Marion’s gap-toothed smile, unchanged from when we played in her garden as kids, with no seashells to whisper in our ears just yet. I’d forgotten what her laugh sounded like, but I didn’t think I wanted to hear her scream as the ocean pulled her down.
The moment the sea touched my legs, pain seared my shins and I stifled a scream. My breath escaped in white bursts. I forced myself to keep walking, ignoring the sharp sting of the cold in my feet, my calves, my thighs. I kept my eyes locked on the tilting, groaning boat, the hazy figures of the sirens crawling up the ropes. Every brush of a clammy dead hand from the floating corpses made me gag, but I trudged forward because the next body to brush against me could have been Eli’s or Marion’s.
When the water reached my navel, my stomach seized and I recoiled. I drew in a shaky breath as deep as my frozen lungs would allow, and then I dove. Every inch of my body screamed and writhed against the cold. The world went black for a moment, and then all I could see was a film of darkness flecked with angry white darts of ice. I was sure I would never be truly warm again.
The first wave hit me just as I came up for air, and I was knocked backward. Have you ever coughed under water? I’d always wondered what drowning was like. As my lungs spasmed and my brain screamed with panic, I imagined it must be something like that.
Somehow, I managed to return to the surface, gasping and heaving. I could barely see through the salty spray, but I could just make out the blurry image of a lifeboat crashing into the ocean, ropes cut from too high in desperation. I couldn’t tell if the horrific crashing sound was the water or the rocks just beneath, but then the boat seemed to cave in on itself. Moments later two large slabs of wood floated towards me, bobbing far too peacefully on the violent waves. I grabbed one and heaved my weight onto it. I used my stiff, screaming legs to kick my way through the water. Each wave pushed me back towards the beach.
I screamed their names, but the rushing of the wind and sea was so loud I could barely hear myself think. The ocean was celebrating, crying out her triumph over a winter feast, one last binge before she cleansed herself of human waste. And what was I doing out there, anyway? Risking my life for the only two people the ocean hadn’t yet taken from me, and then they had used her to escape me. If I had died in her arms they would have rejoiced, praised her as a goddess for freeing them from me. They could have stolen my house and thrown away all the shells, broken the only voices that still spoke to me.
The next wave caught me off guard. I didn’t have time to catch my breath. The water slammed into my chest, ripping my fingers free from the board, and I was thrown backward in the ocean’s grasp. My head hit something hard and my vision blurred, but I could still see the ribbons of red swirling through the deep blue blanket engulfing me. My chest hurt, but the surface was so far away, and the thin veil of light it offered grew dimmer and dimmer as I sank deeper into the indigo.
There was a soft humming all around me, and it sounded like the shells in my garden. It sounded like my mother’s voice singing me to sleep as a child before the cliffs took her away. It sounded like Eli reading old tales by the fire at night. It sounded like Marion and I singing drunkenly on the deck of my grandfather’s old wooden ship on warm spring nights. It sounded like a home that I no longer believed in. And then the song shifted.
I could see it then, a palace of shell and bone. Drawbridges and torch brackets, gilled soldiers with shields and spears made from wooden scraps of broken ships. A ballroom lined with splintered mirrors, reflecting thin beams of green light off shattered fragments of the crystal chandelier that swirled through the chamber.
There were corsets made from the warped steel of melted swords and shields that failed to protect the sailors they served. A woman with golden eyes and emerald hair leaned against a rock, a pink squid circling her bicep, shimmering white shells covering her breasts. Salt and seaweed twisted and twined through the halls, slinking around my wrists and ankles, singing in hushed whispers, urging me forward. Flashing fins, shining scales, and cups of ink black tea steeped with furling tentacles. Every corner was darker than the last, but the water had never been clearer.
My world faded to a dark, hazy cyan, and then her face broke through the fog. Those iceberg eyes, cheekbones sharper than the rock that split my skull. Her webbed hands, softer than velvet and lighter than tissue, cradled my face. Her smoky purple lips parted, and I wondered if I was about to be crowned her corpse queen.
She whispered in my ear and I had never heard a sound so sweet, not even the shells could compare. I kept my eyes locked on hers, waiting for the moment when she sucked the remaining breath from my lungs and swept me away to her palace somewhere. Her lips brushed over mine, soft and cold. She tasted of salt. My hands settled on her waist as hers twined around my hair, and her kiss deepened. What need was there for air when I had a siren’s kiss? The stories were true. I’d heard her voice and no amount of wax could save my ears now.
And then she pulled back. I expected my lungs to cave in and give out, but as she drew away and held me at arm’s length, a rush of air flowed through me and revived my lungs, hitting me as hard as the waves that had sent me crashing below the surface. I coughed and sputtered and bubbles flowed from my lips. Her hand caressed my cheek before she gently removed my own from her waist. I began floating upwards, not down. She rose with me and lifted a hand to her lips. I knew what she was going to do. I tried to call out for her to stop, but my voice didn’t work the way hers did. As she blew me her kiss, the water shifted around us and the current carried me away, leaving her behind.
I washed up on the beach. My head had stopped bleeding and my skirts were frozen stiff. There was no sign of a ship in the water, no sails, no lifeboats, no floating wreckage. My siren was nowhere to be found.
There was a man lying next to me, and for a moment I was sure he was dead like all the rest. Then I noticed the slight, shuddering rise and fall of his chest. Somehow, we had both survived. I saw the freckles on his nose and the sopping red hair, and I was grateful for the siren’s air because it allowed me to scream as I had never screamed before. It was a horrible sound, really, and I loved it.
His eyes flew open at the sound of my shrieking, taking a moment to focus on my face, and then his eyes lit up, and his blue-tinged lips quivered into a smile. He reached out a hand to stroke my cheek; it felt like sandpaper against my skin. My scream died out. I wished the light in his eyes would too. His hand dropped and his smile slipped as I scrambled away from him, pushing myself to my feet.
He was alive so I figured Marion must have been too. I searched the sand for her silver-blonde hair, but I didn’t see it. She wasn’t there, and I felt like I would be sick when I turned back to the ocean. The waves winked at me in the weak beam of sunlight now peeking through the clouds.
I looked back to where Eli lay on the sand. He held up a hand and I prepared for the speech that I didn’t want to hear, that it was a mistake, that he came back for me, that I didn’t have to be alone anymore.
But he left her. Marion wasn’t on that return ship with him. Somewhere along the way in the past eleven months, he grew tired and bored and he tossed her away like he did with me, and then he decided to come back. What did he know about being alone?
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something that had not been there a moment before. There was a shell next to his body, the same dusky purple as the siren’s lips. I stepped over him to reach for it and held it to my ear. I closed my eyes to the sound of her voice. I could picture her drifting through the echoing halls of her underwater home, floating through the water, singing softly. It sounded like my name.
Something brushed against my foot. A seaweed crown, woven with pearls and small shells in colours I never knew existed. A crown fit for a corpse queen.
I left the shell on the sand, there would be plenty more for me soon. Maybe someone else would dare the beach and find it there; maybe they would add it to my garden. I took the crown with me, though. I paused only for a moment to look back at the village on top of the cliffs where a small crowd had started to gather. What they must have thought of me at that moment. What you must think of me now. I could imagine their wide-eyed horror, perfectly matching Eli’s face staring up at me. It made my toes curl in the sand, and I dragged Eli back into the sea.
– Gabrielle Crowley