Published in Issue 18 of Visionary Tongue, 2003.
They dream me, bright and shining in the shadowed landscape of sleep, long before the vague grey and white shapes of their boats appear on the horizon. They hear my unearthly bewitching song, sound no human throat could ever possibly produce, and each of them swear they have heard nothing so wondrous before. Nor will they again. They dream of my angelic face, of supple, radiant skin, of my sweet breath mingling with their own. They writhe, caught in the grip of fevered visions, twisting sweat-soaked sheets, spilling pearly semen onto work-hardened bellies. They are enslaved long before they ever set their spell-glazed eyes on the reality of me. Such is men’s desire. Such is the magic that makes it so.
How many men have I lured into the ocean’s cold embrace? How many boats have I swum alongside, crooning the promise of love beyond measure? How many lips have I kissed, both tenderly and passionately, before I took their callused hands in mine and slipped them gently beneath the water’s surface? I am far past counting now, and so it has been for some time.
I feel no shame for what I am. There is no reason that I should, as I have never been anything else. I was created—that is to say we were created, for there are others of my kind—to perform a specific function, and I do my duty unflinchingly. There has never been a question of morality, no trite romantic notions of good and evil. I am a creature of pure instinct, the need to work my sorcerous compulsion having been built into the most basic part of my being. I have no more control over it than an animal can control its urge to eat, to mate, or to protect its young. I know this because I have made more than one futile attempt to control it. I’ve tried to ignore the mystical melodies that form in my head, demanding that I sing them, to resist the rising of power within me, the casting of my fatal spell again and again. Sweet Mother Ocean, how I have tried.
I carry a heretical belief, hidden deep beneath my scales and skin. I believe that my heart is human. I have never spoken of this to another soul, for I could not bear the ridicule, the disgrace it would bring. Yet I am certain of it. Every time I lure an innocent man to his death, a tiny piece of my soul dies with him. Often, I am overcome with such intense emotion, grief so strong as to be incapacitating. I return to the rock, my tiny perch above the waves, and weep for hours. Each man that I have sung into my arms has loved me like he has loved nothing in his life. I have loved them too, every single one. It could be just the nature of the magic, the binding spell that works both ways. I prefer to think that it is simply the painful result of having a human heart.
The man who created me is a sorcerer, one of the most powerful the world has ever seen. He laid claim to an enormous island two miles out from the mainland, and on its high shale cliffs he built his castle. Having always spurned the company of other humans, he chose this remote location so he could pursue his work in peace. He created of it a paradise for himself, full of striking ornamental gardens, ornate bathing pools, and formal courtyards with towering fountains, mazes of shaded pathways, and all manner of rare flora and fauna.
Any castle worth its gilded turrets needed defending, and when his wonderland was complete, he set about building these defences. No unsightly cannons, no moat to restrict his movement, not this one. His weapons must be fashioned of flesh, must breathe the same air as he and think with minds not unlike his own. He gave life to a small army of centaurs, each of them deadly accurate bowmen. Next came the griffins, scourge of the skies, casting long, ominous shadows on the water as they circle overhead. A manticore to prowl in the shadowy paths of the hedge maze, a pair of basilisks that dwell in burrows on the beach, a nest of harpies on the far side of the island and, of course, the sirens.
He must have known that his home, isolated even as it was, would not remain unnoticed. And so he was right. Seekers of knowledge, adventurous youths hoping for apprenticeship, fellow sorcerers who wish both to learn from and undo him, those who seek to bring the laws of the mainland to one who clearly thinks himself above them, and others who have only heard tell of the wonders the island holds and wish to see it for themselves. All of them have come and they come still. None have yet made it to the sorcerer himself. He says if anyone ever should, then that one would be a welcome and worthy apprentice, and would be taken in without question.
I think he created the mermaids just for pleasure, for they are utterly useless otherwise. All bright eyes and vapid smiles, their only care is for their own beauty. They spend their time brushing their shining hair, then squinting into the water, trying to see their reflections. As much as I detest them, there are times I think I would rather be counted among their number.
The sorcerer, whose name is Armin, is a good and kindly man, despite his pretensions. Very often, he will come down to the shore with a basketful of berries or some other such treat, and he talks to us of many things while we savour the food he has brought. We could do worse for a master, much worse indeed.
It was on such a day, sun shining bright on the blue-green water, Armin talking about a recent experiment while we sampled his strawberries that a strange idea began to take shape in my head. It made my heart begin to race, this thought, and I grew giddy with pleasure and absolute fright as my imagination took hold of the thread and began to run with it, weaving a deliciously forbidden tapestry. When Armin stood to take his leave, the other sirens already returning to their respective rocks to bask in the early summer sun, I remained behind.
He turned at the last moment, before starting up the steep trail that led to the top of the cliff, and saw me waiting in the water. I thought my heart would burst from my chest, my breath stuck in my throat, and I could not speak.
“Do you need something, Tanza?” he asked, and paused, hesitating, before slowly returning to the water’s edge. The words I needed to speak were too large to fit through the narrow passage of my throat. I opened my mouth to answer, but no sound came out. He gave me a strange look then, and once more turned to go.
I was on the verge of losing what little nerve I had gathered entirely, but I could not miss this chance. I knew that if I did not speak it now, the forbidden words of this crazed idea, I never would. I forced them out all in a rush, too loud and fast, the result only so much gibberish.
“What?” he asked, unreadable expression on his aged face as he turned again to face me. I was feeling sillier by the moment, my face and ears burning with embarrassment. I wished I had returned to my rock when the others had, that I had never thought to give voice to this. Nevertheless, I repeated the words. They came a little easier this time, but not much.
“Do I have a human heart?”
“Now why would you ask a question like that?” he replied, with all the grandfatherly indulgence in the world, as if I were five years old and had just asked him why the sky was not green instead of blue.
“I want to be a human woman,” I said, so softly I was not sure that he heard. This inspiration was only minutes old, but I knew it was absolute truth, my only desire.
“Why, by all the nefarious Gods, would you want to be human?” he said with a disgusted laugh, the idea clearly preposterous to him. “Look at yourself.” My eyes remained fixed on him, uncertain of what he wanted.
“I mean it, look at yourself,” he said, and so I did. I saw the same things I always saw. Human-like body, the main difference being brightly-coloured fins, shimmering blue and green, that stretched from ankle to calf, from wrist to elbow, and iridescent scales in the same hues covering my arms and legs. Sea-foam coloured hair, stretching past my waist. Nervously, I pulled an errant strand of kelp from my shoulder. There was nothing unusual here, and I told him so.
“You really don’t see it, do you?” I bit my lip and shook my head. I wanted to see it, whatever it was. I always wanted to please him. “You are a perfect being,” he explained, “A wondrous daughter of the marriage between magic and science! There is not another creature in this world like you, and yet your only desire is to become one of the nameless, faceless masses. I do not understand it!”
I saw his point then, finally. Even though there were other sirens, each of us was wholly different. I had insulted him, the one who had so painstakingly given me life, and I had not even known it. Quite overwhelmed with guilt and shame, my only wish at that moment was to sink beneath the protective skin of the ocean and never resurface. Worse even than that, the other sirens had noticed our meeting, and were returning to the shore, not wanting to miss anything good, always competing for the Master’s attention.
“Let’s ask your sisters their opinion on the matter, shall we?” he asked. I rose my arms in protest, opened my mouth to plead with him not to say anything, but it was too late. He was already calling to them. “Tanza wishes to be human,” he said, more than a hint of scorn in his voice, “What do you think of that?”
I was mortified. Not one of them spoke a word. Icy glares were fixed upon lovely faces, all directed at me. They felt I had betrayed him, and in so doing betrayed them as well, and I suppose they were right. I knew that they would speak of me, but not to me, for weeks. I would be an outcast among my own kind. I was so overwhelmed that I began to weep, crystal tears falling like ocean spray, and before I thought to try and contain it, I was sobbing like the ocean had suddenly gone dry.
“I never could abide a woman’s tears,” Armin said, his voice softening, “Very well, Tanza, if this is truly what you wish to do, I will grant it. I would rather go against my own better judgment than have you always resent me for denying you. Step up onto the shore, and I will make it so.”
I didn’t even hesitate. Tears still streaming down my face, I strode quickly onto the tiny strip of beach. I could feel the outrage of my sisters keenly, like daggers planted firmly in my back. It was far too late to back out now, even though my instincts screamed for me to return to the water, now, immediately, before it was too late! But then I would have risked it all for nothing, and I could not bear the thought of the loneliness and humiliation I would be forced to endure, until the anger of the other sirens burned out.
Armin spoke not another word, and neither did I, the wet sand beneath my feet expressing more than any words possibly could. He merely raised his hands, which, after a moment, began to glow with golden light. I had never seen him work his magicks before, and I was fascinated, until the light grew so bright that I had to look away. The very next thing I knew was pain.
He unleashed his power in full force upon my body, and I am sure I screamed as the fins were torn from my arms and legs as if by invisible hands, my scales ripped one by one from my skin. I have to admit that I can’t quite remember exactly what happened. I do remember seeing the bloody, ruined mess of my legs, my body so tortured as to be beyond mere pain, and then marvelling as the skin was rendered perfect, whole and unblemished. I remember ‘feeling’ my hair change colour, becoming the deepest sable inside of an instant, and coiling itself on top of my head.
When the shower of burning light was finally spent, I stood transformed. My physique had not changed much that I knew. And even though I couldn’t see it through the thick, unfamiliar fabrics I was now clothed in, I could feel that every inch of my body was now covered in glorious human skin. I am sure he could have made the change painless, that my suffering was just the final measure of his disapproval. It didn’t matter now, not even a little bit. I was human, and that fact was all I knew or cared to know.
“I can never thank you enough,” I said, and dropped a formal curtsy, the edge of my skirt in my hand. I was puzzled. Where had this strange behaviour come from? I searched my mind for the answer, and I realized what he had done. Within that scouring light had been information as well as transformation. Armin had given me knowledge, a condensed version of his own human experience. Suddenly I had names and uses for things I had never seen, mental pictures of places I had never visited, and strange new notions such as etiquette, fashion, and proper manners. Involuntary tears began to leak from my eyes at the magnitude and thoughtfulness of this great gift.
“You aren’t going to cry again, are you?” Armin asked.
“No,” I replied, smiling, “No.”
“Well, I could hardly let you go off into the world unprepared, could I?” he said, divining what I was feeling with such careless ease. He took my arm and led me away from the beach, away from all I had ever known. In my excitement and haste, I never thought to say goodbye.
When I saw the port city of Eventine for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind that I had made the right decision. It seemed an extravagant painting of some fantastical legend, all domes and spires, turrets and high stonewalls. It rose far above the sea, concurrently imposing and inviting, and I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. I looked forward to calling this place my home.
I had spent two nights in Armin’s castle. We sat together, eating human food and drinking sweet wine made from apricots. We talked of many things; an exercise, I knew, in polite conversation and social graces. He wished to make sure that I would be able to blend in among other humans, that I would not stand out as alien among them. I was still his beloved creation, and I cannot fault him for being concerned with my welfare.
He set me on my journey with a trunk full of beautiful new clothing, fine dresses and skirts, blouses and silken undergarments. This clothing was so strange, confining and concealing, so that nary an inch of my hard won human skin could be seen! I had never seen so many tiny fastenings as were on these clothes. It had taken me a full hour to get dressed that morning, and my hands still ached from fumbling with the cursed things. I hoped it would get easier.
Armin had pressed a fat pouch of silver coins into my hand, as I stepped onto the boat, “to pay for my keeping”. I had never expected so much from him, and my gratitude was great.
The journey by boat to the mainland was hard. The urge to jump into the water and swim back to my rock was almost overwhelming. That, Armin explained, was the key to undoing the spell, and would return me to my true form. When I had tired of being human, and he assured me that I would, all I need do is dive into the ocean. The only drawbacks were that I must not go swimming, or bathe in too large a tub, else I revert unexpectedly.
It was nearly dusk when I reached the inn that Armin had recommended to me. It was nothing short of a palace, at least to my eyes, a hotel that obviously catered to fairly wealthy visitors. After I saw to my room, I wandered back downstairs to the common rooms in search of food. I had not eaten since that morning, and I was quite famished.
I could almost feel the piano, the vibrations of the music in the air, before I heard it. I entered the smaller of the two dining rooms, lit by the soft glow of gaslights and many expensive white candles. More than half of the tables were filled, the constant buzz of mealtime conversations filling the air, yet I heard it not. The sweet melody emanating from the piano in the corner captured and held all of my attention.
I realized, as I stood there, that I was holding my breath, fighting the instinctual urge to sing. I was not fully human after all. Somewhere, hiding in the deepest part of me, my siren self lived on. The urge quickly grew to a need, my body turning against me, every part of my being insisting that I open my mouth and let the sound pour forth.
I gave in to it eventually, ashamedly, for I had to. I felt at risk of being torn apart if I continued to resist. The surge of both relief and release that came almost brought me to my knees. Yet it was not my magical siren song that filled the room, as I had feared it would be, and brought utter silence to every table. It was a wordless melody sung in a spectacular human voice, pure and clear as a seer’s crystal, weaving a delicate counterpoint with the piano. The patrons sat spellbound. What could have been taken as an affront to their dignity instead held them rapt, so beautiful was my song.
I had no choice but to pretend I had done this intentionally, so I slowly crossed the length of the room, coming to rest next to the piano and the startled musician seated behind it. I turned to face my audience then, delivering the last phrase of my unplanned aria to their gaping faces. The final chords of the piano died away, and I was met with total silence. How they stared at me, as if they could not decide whether to herald me as angel or denounce me as foulest demon. I would have laughed, but this silence was not mine to break.
The applause came, slowly at first, then thunderous, far too loud within the confines of the small dining room. I noticed tears shining on the faces of some of the women, and no few of the men as well. I smiled then, and executed a little bow, continuing the unexpected charade of travelling diva.
My ordeal at an end, I made my way towards one of the empty tables, and found a man standing next to me. I took him all in at a glance. Tall he was, with jet black hair that poured over his shoulders, pale skin so inviting I had to clench my hand into a fist to keep myself from touching it.
“You certainly know how to make an entrance,” he said, in a voice much deeper than one would expect, “Most unconventional.”
“I am a very unconventional woman, Mr.—“
“Meteron. Dashiel Meteron.”
“I am Tanza d’Mertis,” I said, using the surname that Armin insisted I have, and extending my hand to him. His touch burned my skin, so that I half expected to find welts where he touched me, and he pressed unearthly soft lips to my fingers.
“The pleasure is mine, Miss d’Mertis,” he said, full smile playing across those precious lips, “I thoroughly enjoyed your performance. Would you care to dine with me?”
“That would be lovely,” I said, matching his smile. He took my arm and led me to his table. I could feel the heat of him even through the thick sleeve of my dress.
And dine we did. I had so little experience with human food, I found myself wanting to sample everything. I finally settled on a platter containing three different types of shellfish in a mushroom cream sauce. Strange, I know, that I should choose shellfish, but I had a longing for a familiar treat prepared in human fashion. It was the most phenomenal meal I had ever eaten, synonymous with my new form and freedom. Dashiel kept the conversation going—I very much doubt he had ever seen a woman eat the way I did! He filled my glass again and again with a spicy golden wine of which I could not seem to get enough. I was quite drunk by the time we had finished, and beautiful Dashiel was every bit the respectful gentleman. He walked me to my room, and I will take any oath that I smelled burning fabric from where his fingers lay upon my arm. He made me promise to meet him the following day, then sweetly kissed me goodnight. I barely slept at all that night, in spite of the day I had endured. My only thoughts were of his perfect face, and the fire in his fingers. This was what my human heart had waited so long for.
I met him after breakfast, a long silhouette against the bright morning sun, on the street in front of the inn. He wanted to give me a tour of the Eventine Bazaar, where there were hundreds of vendors crammed into tiny stalls near the docks, and one could purchase all manner of rare and exotic goods. We walked for hours together, the ebb and flow of our voices never ceasing, never seeming to pause for breath. Yet I could not tell you what it was that we talked about, all that long day.
Not that Dashiel was boring, quite the opposite, in fact. I was simply paying much more attention to what lay beneath our measured words. The subtleties of tone and inflection, the way his voice would break just slightly if I turned my head to look into his eyes, his throaty laugh that warmed me through every time I heard it. The language and nuance of gesture seemed distractingly important as well, making our pleasant conversation feel dry as dust. The sidelong looks up and down the bodice of my dress when he thought I was not looking, the way his fingers trembled when he took my arm to guide me through the crowds, the tilt of his head that caused his hair to fall across his eyes. The undercurrents of the interaction between us were exhilarating, fascinating. This heady infusion, when boiled down to its simplest essence, was nothing too extraordinary. Set well behind the mask of civility and pleasantry were dangerous sparks, flashing like coloured lightning behind his eyes. I saw in him raw, naked human desire, something I was already quite familiar with, and found it also mirrored, even amplified, within myself.
By candlelight, Dashiel became even more beautiful. His pale skin turned dusky gold, ominous somehow, as if he were not quite of the world he lived in. I was suddenly aware of my surroundings, the passage of time, and did not know quite how I had come to be there. We were in my rooms, Dashiel and I, alone, and it was well past dark. So utterly enthralled had I been by his presence, his languid movements, the spicy smell of his skin, that I had lost everything but the overwhelming sense of him. I knew him not at all, yet already I loved him completely.
His hands were in my hair, unlacing my bodice, his breath hot on the nape of my neck, making my own breathing quickens and my heart begins to race. So long had I waited for this moment, my human heart needing a human body for just this purpose, but I must admit I was quite overwhelmed. The sensations were just too consuming, every nerve a microcosm of sensation, all alive and burning and threatening to steal the little control I had left.
His dark hair covered me like a living shroud, caressing my breasts, my belly, tickling. He kissed every inch of my bare skin, making love fully to the surface of me. I could feel his heartbeat in every place I touched, his blood rushing beneath my fingers, mingling with his laboured breath, the entirety of his attention honed and focused on me. Once I grew accustomed to these new sensations, I revelled in them. I felt sure that humans took this experience for granted, as it is the nature of all creatures to do, when the mystical becomes commonplace.
His kisses grew sharper, the flavour of his desire more intense, demanding, and he took me to this new place with him. Each arrival also a point of departure, so distinctly different yet all flowing together like knots in a fine-woven tapestry. I wanted this moment never to end. I always wanted the spicy smell of him in my nostrils, the taste of his skin on my tongue, his crystal eyes locked into mine, no longer separate, but each an extension of the other. Always, always we would be one.
He hesitated, stilled himself altogether when he encountered the little sliver of as-yet-unbroken flesh. It meant so little to me, this fragile barrier that separated our joining, yet it was touching that he thought it so important.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he breathed into my ear. I answered not, but shifted my body just a little, and uttered a small gasp against the pain. It was over in a moment, the inner tide swelling again, sweeping us both along with it, the final destination such a quiet place, a sacred place, where galaxies are spun into being from the fabric of nothingness, where stars ignited with cold fury, where everything was all just so many tiny parts of a much, much greater thing. My cheeks were wet with uncontrolled tears; my newly awakened body so much shudder and spasm as he came to rest atop me. I wrapped my arms tight around him, my breath perfectly synchronized with his own, and I vowed to myself that I would never let him go. I would hold him, just like this, forever.
“Tanza,” he murmured, into my damp hair, onto my neck, a hundred times my whispered name escaped his lips, and I had never heard it sound so beautiful. I heard the echoes of it long after sleep had stolen silently into the room to claim us both.
The days passed like water through cupped fingers, one trickling into the next so quickly and quietly, with nothing but the distant cycles of light and darkness to mark their passage. There was room in my world for nothing but Dashiel. We made love times beyond counting, I insatiable in my passion, he only slightly less so. I was never quite happy unless we were naked together and touching, and when circumstances dictated otherwise, my only thoughts were of when we could be so again.
I found myself captivated by the subtleties of his body, as if I were trying to commit every physical detail to memory. Once, lying in bed together, our various hungers temporarily fed, Dashiel reading me poetry from an old leather-bound volume, my whole attention was taken up by the veins in the back of his hand, blue and pulsing faintly beneath the skin. Other times it was the downy hairs on his arm, caught in a light breeze coming in from the window, or the little darker blue flecks in his eyes, down near the pupil.
I found myself growing nervous when he would leave my side, even for a little while, to procure our dinner or go shopping for some little surprise trinket. If he was gone more than a few moments, an awful feeling would come upon me, and I knew that he would not return, that I would never see him again. I should have realized this as the instinctual message that it was, but instead chalked it up to some strange anxiety or other. I was dangerously obsessed, though I knew it not. I thought it to be only the effects of love. Pure, sweet, all-consuming love.
One morning I woke, sun streaming through the window, a cool ocean breeze moving through the room. I sighed in contentment—I remember it so clearly—and reached for my beloved, only to find that the bed was empty. The smell of him lingered still, but it was not that which I craved. I opened my eyes, panicked, and cried out his name. Of course, there was no response. In frenzy, I searched the little suite, even though I knew it was empty. Only the scent of him remained, and, of course, the obligatory note.
Tanza, it read, not darling or dearest, just Tanza, as though we had shared so little. I thank you for these wonderful days we have spent together. I have had to leave early this morning in order to continue my travels. The suite is paid for another week, so you may stay as long as you like. Yours, D.
I did not bother to read the letter a second time, as some might, trying to decipher some deeper meaning than what lay within the hastily scrawled lines. I had no time for that. The scrap of parchment fell to the floor, unheeded, and I began to pull on whatever clothes were at hand. I was crazed, my mind working too fast, a thousand different thoughts all-competing for the same space. Yet a deeper part of me, perhaps the siren part, seemed to know exactly what I was doing. I knew there was really only one way out of Eventine, and that was by sea. If he were still in the city, I would find him at the docks. The chance was remote, but I was desperate. I loudly cursed to a fiery death every human clothier ever born, as I fumbled with too many buttons and fastenings, finally giving up and, barefoot and bedraggled, I raced out the door.
When I left the inn, my only thought was that I find him, that I not be separated from him another moment. I gave no real thought to the note, what it meant. I only knew that he had somehow forgotten to take me with him, or that it was some sort of test and I must take the initiative and join him, so that we might then be together forever.
The cool morning air proved a remarkable restorative. As I ran down the twisting, narrow streets, which all ultimately led to the sea, my head cleared. I now found every word he had written, and the meaning he had intended, indelibly burned into my consciousness. A glorious anger emerged as I ran, burning hot in my belly, radiating slowly outwards to fill my whole body with welcome wrath, red as spilt blood. It felt good, freeing, something I could use. Perhaps what was left of the siren within me was jarred loose as I ran. By the time I reached the docks, I was a wholly different person from the one who had left the inn only moments ago.
I saw him then; standing on one of the platforms, near one of the large ships that were readying themselves to depart.
“Dashiel!” I cried, voice torn from my throat, sound like none I had ever heard. He looked up, startled, and his pale skin went a shade or two whiter. He had clearly not anticipated my catching up to him. I walked the short distance between us, until we stood practically nose-to-nose. I must have looked quite a fright, half-dressed in mismatched clothes, wild hair and eyes, my tender feet torn open and bleeding. Dashiel backed away, much as he could, and looked like nothing so much as a frightened mouse waiting for the hungry cat’s paw to strike him down.
“T-Tanza,” he stammered, “Why have you come? I meant to make this easy for both of us.”
“By leaving me behind?” I asked, my voice hardly my own, my rage pulsing red and thick around me in electric waves, making it hard to see him clearly, “Easy for whom? I love you, Dashiel. I love you more than anything, and I believe that you love me as well.”
His initial surprise at this confrontation must have worn off, because he actually had the nerve to laugh. “Come now, Tanza,” he said, condescension heavy in his tone, as though I were a thick-headed child, “I’d given you credit for a bit more sophistication than that. What we shared was lovely, priceless. But it’s over now. You should go.”
“I’m not leaving,” I said, planting my bloody feet firmly on the platform in front of him for emphasis, “I’m not going without you, and I’m not going to let you leave without me. We are meant to be together, Dashiel, always.”
He smiled then, a calculating, hurtful smile, full of sharp edges that would cut my soul to ribbons. The beauty of him that I so loved was now turned cruel, a monstrous weapon in his delicate hands. “Do you not think that there was a woman just like you in the city I visited before this one? That there will not be another fair lass, perfectly willing to lie naked at my feet and bark like a dog if I ask it of her, in the very next port? Go home, Tanza. You look an embarrassment, to yourself and to me.”
I began to rail at him, shrieking like a fishwife, cursing him and his entire family line for generations to come. I was out of my head, truly. Everyone within earshot had ceased to move, to speak. A hundred or more pairs of eyes were trained on us, waiting to see what might happen next.
“Let me know,” he said, eyes flashing dangerously, “when you’ve finished. I have a boat to catch.”
At that moment, I saw the sea. The sunlight reflected off the water, bright into my eyes. Mere inches away, the Ocean Mother called to me, beckoned me home, my true home. I longed so to slip into the cool water; I could already feel it on my skin, protective and loving, stable and secure. I would always belong to the ocean. I knew that now. What had I been thinking, to try to become what I was not, could never be? I was created a siren, and a siren I would always be, in human guise or not.
“You have finished, then,” Dashiel said, taking my sudden entranced silence as something else entirely, “Good. Farewell, Tanza.” He picked up his bag, and made as if to go.
The rage returned in a flood, all at once, as if to have one last outcry, a dying shriek, before I silenced it forever. Yes, I would return to the ocean, to my former life and self, but I would not go alone. With a scream like a battle cry, I launched myself at Dashiel, taking him quite by surprise, and we tumbled together off the platform, into the waiting arms of the Mother.
My body changed immediately, painlessly, as I knew it would. As Dashiel floundered for a moment, unsure of quite what had happened, I ripped the cumbersome human clothes from my body. When I looked up again, I noticed that he had done the same. He raised his arms above the water—arms with enormous blood-red fins and shining scales—and flashed me a beatific smile. I was dumbfounded. I could only stare at this unbelievable anomaly, a male siren who seemed as at home in the water as I was myself.
He mistook my confusion for more anger, and the smile slipped from his face. A moment later, he was spluttering and stammering his explanation.
“Please don’t be angry with me,” he was saying, some time after he began speaking, though the words had only just begun to register in my head, “I never meant to deceive you, never! He made me come after you–”
“Who?” I managed, stupidly. I could not get my thoughts clear.
“Armin,” he replied, “He created me just before you left, then forced me to go after you, to ensure your return. I never meant to hurt you, Tanza. I do love you just as much as you love me. It hurt me so much to leave you like that, to say those things to you, his horrible words coming from my mouth—“
“Stop!” I cried, besieged with too much information, conflicting feelings and thoughts chasing each other in circles through my head, “Just stop!” He looked away then, but not before I saw the tears begin to leak from his eyes, fragile ornaments for his pretty face. He wept into his hands while I remained silent, unmoving, waiting for something, anything, to make sense.
The anger returned again, slowly, not overpowering as before, but cold, solid, and sustaining. I would never tolerate such duplicity. I could not fathom that Armin had engineered such an intricate plot to have me back. He had tricked me into giving up the only thing I had ever asked of him, and, by way of consolation, had given me the only other thing I had ever wanted, albeit in a much different way than I had envisioned. I had trusted him, served him and loved him for so many years, and to think that he had betrayed me so utterly made me feel physically sick. A few silent, aching moments later, I knew what I would do.
“Dashiel,” I said, and he looked up at me, his clear blue eyes now red and swollen, “I am not angry with you.” I still loved him, of course I did, but it had changed somehow, twisted back upon itself. I did not know if I could ever forgive the part he had played, however unwillingly, in this treachery. I did not know if I would ever be able to look at the face of my beloved and not experience everything I was feeling at this moment.
“We can be together now, can’t we?” he said, his whole being pleading with me not to reject him now, “Always, just like you said you wanted.” He looked so young and lost, his fear so plain on his face. Under other circumstances, I would have wept with joy.
“Yes, Dashiel,” I replied, my voice flat and hollow, “Always.” I would keep him with me, just as I said, but I knew, even as I spoke the words, that a darker part of me would see to it that he paid dearly for the privilege.
The nearest sirens gasped as Dashiel and I broke the surface together, near the base of my rock. Within moments, all of them had gathered around us, hurling excited questions at me and marvelling over Dashiel. He had finished explaining Armin’s plot and his role in it on our journey back to the island. Apparently, it was not meant to play out quite as it had. It was never intended that I find him at the docks. He was to get on a boat, jump overboard after it had put out to sea, and swim back to Armin’s island. The sorcerer trusted that I would then return home myself, bereft and heartbroken, wishing I had never considered the folly of humanity and all the pain it could bring.
Armin would comfort me, of course, and then present me with Dashiel, whom, he would tell me, he had captured and worked his magicks on—penance for the pain he had caused me—and created of his human flesh a male siren to be my mate.
I seethed, raged inside, longing to scream but schooling myself to silence. The more he explained, the more I was tempted towards the irrational. I wanted to strangle Dashiel, to beat him bloody until I felt better, but that would solve nothing. Better to nurse it, preserve it, hoard it and keep it fresh, until it could do me some good.
I noticed two of my sisters fawning over Dashiel a bit too hungrily. “Estria, Mishri, leave him alone. He’s mine.”
“You do not own him, Tanza,” Estria teased, speaking to me but her eyes never leaving him.
“Yes, I do,” I replied, my tone dangerous, and Dashiel lowered his face, flushing with shame, “Believe me, I do. But we will arrive at the ending soon enough. Gather round, my sisters. I have a tale I wish to tell.”
And so the first step was accomplished, and easier than I had thought. After the send-off I received from them, I did not expect them to listen to me so readily. I had not counted on the mystery that was Dashiel. It did not matter to me where my story left their fickle sensibilities, nor what they did with the information afterward. I cared not a whit what they thought of me, or of what I had done. The only thing that mattered was that they know everything. And very soon they did. When my tale was done, they replied not a word, but slipped into the sea one by one, troubled looks on their beautiful faces. No doubt they wanted to believe it even less than I myself did, and I could not blame them.
The very next morning, Armin made his way down the cliff side, toting the familiar basket of fruit. I met him at the shore, wrapped in Dashiel’s arms, the other sirens in small clusters some distance behind us. Armin looked surprised, taken aback for a moment, as though even with all the power at his command, he had not expected to see us there.
“Welcome home, Tanza,” he said, and spread a heartfelt smile onto his deceitful face, “It is good to see you again. Are you pleased with your gift?”
“Why?” I asked, for though I had thought all night about what I would say to him, this was the only word that would come.
“Why, what?” came the evasive reply.
“Why would you do this to me?” I cried, shaking, thoughts whirling, anger within not serving me but serving him, always serving him, my whole life spent serving him.
“Come now, Tanza, did you really think I could ever let you go?” he replied, warm smile still in place, “I couldn’t bear it. You’re really much happier here, aren’t you? This is your home. You belong here with your sisters, with me.”
I made a strangled little sound, anguish and humiliation choking me. I had meant to make this my finest moment, a scorching confrontation that would leave him as nothing. Yet my words had failed me. Everything had failed me. I could say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing except what he dictated I would be. It had always been thus, and so now it would always be, never my own self but always his to command, to do with as he wished.
That was when I felt it, rising up from deep within me, the only thing that was left amidst the wreckage. And it rose unscathed, filling me utterly, driving everything else out. I opened my mouth and let my siren song fill the morning air. I directed it at my master, with every bit of power I possessed.
He laughed at me, at the lunacy of it, to think that I, his own creation, could ever have an effect on him. Until I heard another voice join to mine, and another after that, entwining in the air, spinning an ecstatic net of thrumming power. Then all of us were singing, Dashiel included, the strange timbre of his rich baritone sending chills of pleasure up my spine. We stood together as I never had thought possible, a horrific choir, united in our purpose.
Armin’s laughter turned to surprise, then to panic, as we sang him into the sea. He managed to kill two of my poor sisters before we overtook him, their bodies torn into bits by his magical golden light, and we were deeply saddened. Yet they had made their own choice to stand against him, knowing full well the risks involved, and they did not perish in vain.
When it was over, we remained for a time, not knowing quite what to do, now that our lives were exclusively ours. The centaurs applauded from the beach, cheers echoing over the water, and immediately set about destroying his paradise and rebuilding the island for themselves.
Dashiel and I were the first to leave the island that day, and while we receive infrequent news from our sisters, we have never returned. It was far easier to make a clean break, a new beginning, without Armin’s baneful spirit coming further between us.
I heard, after a time, that the mermaids had died, wasted slowly away, with no one to appreciate their beauty except themselves. All of the other creations flourished, though Armin’s other magicks faded eventually. Perhaps it was because he gave us true life that we survived him, which is fitting, as children should survive their fathers, and I must always remember to be grateful to him for that most precious gift.
Dashiel and I are, if not truly happy, at least content in our exile, our forms and our fate. We sing together sometimes, spinning haunting songs that echo out over the waves. Yet we sing for our own pleasure only, and stay well clear of the trade routes, for we made the vow the day we left the island that we would never again use our magicks to harm another living soul. I do not know if the same holds true for my sisters, but, for Dashiel and myself, we keep our own company and keep our own secrets, deep within our human hearts.
© Michael S. Dodd
“Michael fiction carried me away with the power and intensity of the tale. I felt immersed in this disturbing world, and disappointed when the tale came to and end – surely the mark of a good yarn.”
Jamie Spracklen, VT Editor