by Raya Gupta
Background information: In Greek mythology, the Sirens are evil creatures who look half bird and half woman. Their bewitching voices often lure the sailors to fatal destruction. They appeared in various works of literature, including the Odyssey and the Metamorphoses. In this short story, Raya writes from the perspective of a Siren, revealing their unseen humanity and beauty.
What it sounds like underwater: pop rocks in your mouth, a thousand firecrackers going off, the slow explosion of a supernova. I want to listen to the symphony forever, but my lungs burn and my chest aches for air before it even reaches the next crescendo. The sound will be there when I am gone, long gone, but I’m worried it will disappear if I reach up for air. The idea of leaving for a second sparks the same panic as leaving forever. It seems easier to die, to drown, for my last breaths to be liquid and my last thoughts music. But my body has other plans, it will not let me be so foolish. I surge up out of the water and the spell is broken. I am human again, no longer some beast driven by sound. I miss the beast.
As I gulp in breath after breath, the world is vivid before my salty eyes. There was nothing but darkness underwater, my eyes squeezed shut, and up here there is nothing but light bouncing off the clear, turquoise water. Holding onto the brim of the boat, I have to shade my eyes against the brightness.
“You were under for a while,” my brother shouts in my ear, “I was almost going to have to haul you back up.”
“Don’t be dramatic, I wasn’t anywhere near drowning.” I snap, but my chest still burns and I’m still going for a world record in air eating. Stupid asthma.
“Okay, okay!” my brother mutters, “anyway, what did you hear?”
“Just some beautiful music.” I reply, “but I was able to pull out of it on my own.”
“Oh, that’s interesting.” he says, looking perplexed.
“What is?” I say sharply. Human chatter is jarring to my ears after the sweet melody of before.
“Well, not the being able to pull yourself out, that was easy for me too. But the fact that you didn’t hear words. I heard such lovely things about my future. They said I’m going to go to MIT and become a successful aerospace engineer and that I will fall in love while working at NASA, but then I had to stop there.” he chirps. I can tell that he thinks that he is better than me at this, and the worst part is that he is probably right.
“I’m sure I’ll hear something more when I go under again.” I say through gritted teeth.
“Okay, but it’s my turn first. Make sure that you hold onto the string tightly, sis, the siren song is nothing to joke about. It might be stronger the second time.” he says seriously, making sure that my hand is wrapped tightly around the cord connected to his swimsuit before putting his head underwater.
The cord seems to cut into my palms as every word of my brother’s cut into my calm. I am annoyed. He may have a successful future full of everything he ever dreamed about, but I am just as good as him at this, maybe I just need a little more practice. The noises on the beach in front of us make my ears bleed. I need to soothe them with salt water and the song. It is no longer a choice for me. It is a burning, racing need in my blood. So I go under and the stars sound in my ears again, sweet relief. This time when my lungs begin to beg for breath I am unwilling to leave the enchanting melody. I am unwilling to face a world where I am most likely going to be a failure, a world that is failing itself. I am unwilling to listen to the endless, useless, grating chatter of humanity, compared to this it will always sound like nails screeching down a chalkboard to me. So I take a deep breath: cool water fills my lungs; I taste salt; it tingles down my throat. But blackness doesn’t take over. I don’t choke. I don’t drown. It feels easier than breathing in air, it feels natural. I take in another deep breath. The water belongs in me and I belong in the water. It feels like a miracle; my heart is soaring. I am flying.
Suddenly a sharp scream interrupts the explosive melody, the soundtrack for my bursting heart, and the whispers of my breathing. It is a human male with dark hair and bloodshot eyes. It is shouting for my attention. It wants my help. It is grotesque: ugly flailing, failing limbs; ugly twisted face disfigured by panic.
It is my brother.
Its howl is blocking the melody that I need to breathe. The sound is unbearable, a desperate, screeching screeeeeeeeeeeeeeam: the sound of raw flesh and angry winds. It drills holes in my mind; when I reach up to touch my head I can feel them. Deep, white and red striped pits; like the peppermint candy my grandmother kept in her purse. I taste blood when my teeth puncture my lip. I must save myself, the delicate damsel in distress with a dagger. I dive down before the sound can wind inside my eyes and around my brain and squeeze till scarlet streams carve my face into fish food. I push that dark haired creature into the sand. It twitches, hazy clouds billowing up into the water, but it is no match for me. I am the shark in these waters; being the apex predator is like flying. I grab a handful of algae and stuff it into my mouth as I sit on its fleshy stomach to wait. My seat becomes still and quiet and comfortable, but I don’t want to rest. My blood boils in a way that only movement can satisfy. I want to swim to the edge of the world and dangle my feet off it. I start to move. I swim. I fly. I follow the sound as it gets louder and louder, until it is me and I am it. The seafloor dances beneath me, I never knew that it could be so sundry . The terrain underwater is as variable as on dry land. I swim for hours, for days, maybe for weeks. I swim until I find my sisters. They are beautiful, as streamlined and graceful as their songs. I have brought them a gift, I have dragged its corpse behind me on a string for days now. They are grateful for the nourishment. We feast on its decaying face, studded with starfish and sand. But we eat quickly, and then…
We Sing. Enveloped in enchanting sound, singing for all of eternity.