by Chris Pearce
She remembered when her sisters died. She had seen many deaths before; many ships had wrecked upon the rocks of the island. But these deaths had almost all blurred together in her memory, while the deaths of her sisters remained distinct. Their shrieks had been the last sound to reach each corner of the island. Anthemusa was quiet now, quieter than it had ever been. Only the occasional chord of harp music penetrated the silence, and the sound of a harp always grew dull without accompaniment.
They had never feared death, those three sisters. They were immortal, and the difference between a day and a year was meaningless to them. They were the sirens, the daughters of the earth and the sea and the sky, and they were as beautiful as any mortal woman, though they had wings twice as long as they were tall, and talons like those of fierce birds of prey with claws that were shining brass.
She had always played her harp, almost constantly, until the day her sisters died. For hours, perhaps even for days (or maybe even longer-it was hard for her to know), she let her harp be silent, and there was no sound on the island except the sound of the waves lapping against the rocks. She had not heard silence in such a long time that she had almost forgotten what it sounded like. Her sisters had always been talking or singing, even when she herself had let her voice grow idle and her harp music fade away.
Her sisters though, they always sang, and their songs brought visitors. Men sailed to the island-never intentionally, for none could find the island that sought to do so-and heard the song that the sisters sang, and were enraptured by the honeyed notes.
“Why do we sing?” she had asked them once. “Why do we lure sailors to the island?”
“So their ships will crash on the rocks, and we can feast on their flesh,” said her sister Mapsaura, the swift wind.
“I know that isn’t true,” she answered. “We have food here. We have the flowers on the island.”
“We can’t live on flowers,” answered Mapsaura.
“We do live on flowers,” she replied. “And we don’t eat the sailors. We watch them drown on the rocks as they listen to us sing. But, why do we do that?”
“Why would you eat flowers when you can eat sailors?” asked Mapsaura. “The flesh of sailors tastes best of all men. The ocean air seasons them well.”
“Mapsaura, quiet,” hissed Aello. She was the oldest, and when she was the only thing in the world that could silence Mapsaura. “I don’t imagine that sailors would taste good. They are a dirty lot, even if heroes do sometimes travel with them. No hero is ever a sailor. Now heroes, they would most certainly taste good. They almost always have the blood of the gods coursing through their veins. Divine blood.”
“You, dear sister, are no fun,” pouted Mapsaura. “Don’t listen to her, little Celaeno.”
“Why do you ask that question, Celaeno?” asked Aello. “We’ve always sang our songs, since we were born, and men have always sought to hear our voices.
“I don’t know,” answered Celaeno, shrugging her shoulders and letting her wings drape around her.
She did know the reason. Sometimes when her sisters sang, she sang with them (though never as loudly or as clearly, and her voice was not as beautiful as her sisters), and sometimes she played the harp (though it was always just accompaniment to her sisters voices, and she still sometime struck a sour note), and sometimes she was simply quiet and listened. There were secrets in their voices, secrets that no one else knew, secrets given to them from the depths of the Earth. This was what made their songs so compelling. The sailors who came to the island would listen to the secrets that were woven into the songs and wait until the cold grip of the sea claimed them.
But her sisters didn’t hear the secrets. They were too busy listening to their music-and their music was beautiful, after all. The notes that came from their mouths were more beautiful than the notes of any harp or the song of any mortal musician. So they heard their songs, but they didn’t listen.
Celaeno listened sometimes, when she let her voice grow quiet and she plucked on the strings of her harp. She heard their stories, and remembered every word. She learned the pasts of the sailors; she saw the faces of their parents, heard their laughter when they were children. She saw the futures that they almost had; she saw them fall in love, and marry, and have children; she saw them grow old, and saw the earth claim them again. But then she saw the futures that they truly had, as they clung to the rocky shores of Anthemusa, just to hear a single song, a single chord, a single simple note.
One day when she saw that a ship was headed towards their home, she picked a spot close to the shore-as close as she possibly could sit without risking being claimed by the ocean’s waves-in preparation for the song that she and her sisters would soon begin to sing. She played her harp and sang softly, while her sisters allowed their voices to be carried high up into the wind. And as every time before, the ship turned towards Anthemusa, lured by the honey of the sister’s voices. The sailors ignored the clear danger that the rocks presented, for the only thought in their minds was to get closer to the source of the music that they heard. And just as every time before, the ship wrecked on the rocks, spilling its cargo and its crew into the craggy sea that surrounded the island.
The sailors clung to the rocks, but they made no attempts to climb up onto the island. All they wanted was to hear the sisters sing-they cared not for their own lives. Most of them swam to the rocks that sat under the perches of Mapsaura and Aello, for they sang far more beautifully (and far more loudly) than Celaeno ever could. She tried to lift her voice to match theirs, in hopes that she could lure just a single sailor to her perch, but always the voices of Mapsaura and Aello grew clearer and louder.
But Celaeno’s voice caught one man’s attention. He had grabbed a rock closer to Celaeno, and had heard her voice before her sister’s voices could enrapture him. She saw him clinging to the rocks, and she tried to drown out the sound of the sea, and the sound of her sister’s songs, and the sound of the men drowning in the briny waters. She wanted to hear the words of her song instead of losing them to the music that was wrapped around them.
She heard the man’s story. He was not remarkable, in any way; but she was singing only to him, and the story that she told in her song did not become muddled with anyone else’s. She saw his life with clarity, and each note of her song was a second in the sailor’s life. She walked with him on the sandy beaches of his home. She saw his parent’s faces, and the faces of everyone she loved. And she changed her song, weaving new words into the chords. “Swim away, swim away, swim away and never return. Forget, forget, forget the island, forget the song, forget, forget me.”
The sailor blinked as she sang her new song. He looked up at her, and held out his hand. She let her harp nearly fall into the sea as she leaned towards him, but she stopped short and pulled herself back onto the rocks. He stared at her, closed his eyes, and began to swim away from her, and from the island.
That had not been the last time that she did this. The last time grew quiet so she could listen was when Odysseus had sailed by their home. She hadn’t expected it to be the last time-but no one ever expects their family to die before their eyes.
There was no one on the island to drown out her voice anymore-but there was no longer anyone there to listen. Perhaps it was because she had stopped singing-but she thought to herself that even if she started singing again, no one would come. Their song was only beautiful when her sisters were the ones singing.
For the first few days, she withdrew to the center of the island, drinking the dew off the flowers and subsisting on little else. All she could hear was the sound of the waves crashing on the island; Anthemusa was a small place. Eventually, she picked up her harp again, and began to play, singing softly to accompany the tune. At first her voice could barely be heard above the sound of the harp and the ocean, but slowly her voice built up higher.
She sang for some time, and did little else. Days and weeks and months were meaningless, with nothing to distinguish one from another. One day, when the playing the harp had grown tired and dull, a bird arrived at the island, and sat and listened to her sing. It was a seagull, and Celaeno knew what a seagull meant; there was a ship coming. She quieted her voice, and looked beyond the horizon. There were more birds, flocking over something that was drifting to the ocean. There was darkness as well, gathering slowly, and flashes of light. She held out her hand, and the seagull alighted on her finger.
“Hello, sea-bird,” she whistled to the gull.
“Hello, song-maiden,” chirped the bird. “Have you seen the ship?”
“There is a ship?” she asked. “Is it Athenian or Spartan or Theban or Ithacan?”
“None of those,” chirped the bird. “Doesn’t matter, song-maiden. The boat sank.”
“A storm?” she asked, already knowing the answer. She had seen storms before; her sisters loved them. Storms brought ships to their island-and ships brought sailors, who would gladly drive their ships into the rocks to hear the sister’s song. Even if their ship sank, if the sailors heard but a note of their melody, they would gladly swim for miles to reach Anthemusa. They perch themselves on the rocks and stare up at the sisters and listen to them sing until exhaustion overcame them and they sunk into the sea.
“A storm,” the seagull agreed. “Will you sing to them, sea-maiden? Will you give them happiness before the sea drags them away?”
“No,” she whispered. “I won’t.”
The seagull flew away from his perch on her finger, and Celaeno dropped from her seat upon the rocks of the island and spread out her wings wide, catching the updraft from the hot rocks of the island. Her wings felt heavy and tired-she couldn’t remember the last time she had flown. She never seemed to have need of it before. The ships always came to Anthemusa before they wrecked. She soared into the air, looking down at the wreckage that bobbed along the ocean waves. She scanned the water, looking for the slightest bit of movement that would indicate a survivor.
She saw a ripple in the water, and saw dark shapes swimming below a figure clinging to a rotting plank of wood. She swooped down towards the survivor, hissing at the circling sharks. She grabbed the man with her talons and pulled him up, heaving him skyward with all her strength. As she did so, she heard him choke, and expel water from deep in his lungs.
She flew as swiftly as she could, and deposited his body on the soft purple flowers of the island. She looked at his face, and recognized him instantly. His hair had become white from age, his skin was wrinkled and blemished, and his arms with weak and bone thin, but she remembered him. She had watched him sail away, when her sisters flung themselves onto the rocks.
“Has it been so long, Odysseus?” she asked, as he opened his eyes and lifted himself up from the ground.
“Siren,” said Odysseus, with a laugh and a smile. “It has, in fact, been a very long time.”
“How long has it been, hero?” she asked, staring at him. His strength was gone, and his youth had faded away, but she saw in his eyes the same shine that she had seen so long ago. “We immortals lose track of time so easily. We can’t easily distinguish one day from another, and our sense of time falls apart.”
“I’ve lived a long time, too, now,” said Odysseus. “I found immortality now. It helps when a sorceress has fallen in love with you.”
“When I sang your song, I heard you die. I saw you die. How have you lived so long, Odysseus?” she asked him.
“I heard your song too, you know,” said Odysseus. “Circe told me that I would need to do so. And I’m glad I heard your sister’s voices. They told me how I would die. And since I knew how to die, I knew how I could continue to live.”
“Why have you come to my island, Odysseus?” she asked him.
“It has been a long, long time,” said Odysseus, who was interrupted by a spasm of coughing. “People don’t think of heroes the same way that they used to. There’s no one left but hedge wizards, and I haven’t seen a nymph in a hundred years. And Athena hasn’t spoken to me since I left Penelope.”
“Is that why you are immortal now?” asked Celaeno.
“There are advantages to being the favored of a goddess,” said Odysseus. “But being the favored of a goddess no longer matters. So I left my home. I wanted to find a place where being a hero still mattered.”
“Have you found such a place?” Celaeno asked.
“I have not,” said Odysseus. “I think that I shall stay here. I can wait for the world to change again. It isn’t as if I have to worry about growing any older.”
“You’re old now,” said Celaeno. “What happened, Odysseus?”
“A gift from Athena,” snorted Odysseus. “I have loved many women in my time. The sorceress Circe, and the nymph Calypso, and my wife Penelope. When I listened to the song of your sisters, I heard of my death. I learned that Circe would bare me a son, and that the son would murder me. And that Penelope would marry him, and go and live on Circe’s island. The very thought of it stuck in my mind. I had wanted to see her again, for so long. And I did see her again. But I told Athena what I had learned, and she laughed. She told me that I would not have to worry about Penelope, for my memory of her would soon fade. She then gave me the gift of immortality.”
“That would be a wonderful gift for a mortal,” said Celaeno, smiling.
“You should never accept gifts from a goddess,” said Odysseus. “They always come with a price. She wanted me to become her consort. I was unwilling to spend eternity with a single woman-even if she was a goddess. So, she let me keep my gift of immortality, but she also cursed me. She said that I would be old forever. Eternal life without eternal youth-that’s not a gift at all. Ah, but you wouldn’t really understand, would you? You have both.”
“Why would you want to wait on my island?” asked Celaeno. “Even if the world has changed, Anthemusa is a lonely place. You have immortality-why would you worry?”
“I’d rather wait here,” snorted Odysseus. “Less trouble. Less worry.”
“I think I’ll leave the island,” said Celaeno. “The world may have changed, but I never even saw it before the change. I’m not going to wait for it to change again.”
“Ha! You? The runt of the litter of the earth?” said Odysseus, his laughter tinged with disdain. “You could not survive. Your sisters are the ones that everyone has learned to fear. You were only ever the accompaniment. You know, I only expected to see two sirens when I sailed by the island. People don’t even know you exist. Your sisters are the ones everyone cares about.”
“I can sing,” said Celaeno. “My voice can lure men to their doom, just as easily as my sisters did. I could make you jump off onto the sea and drown.”
“Then do so,” said Odysseus, his arms crossed. Celaeno stared straight into his eyes, and began to sing. Odysseus’s eyes grew wide, and he stepped towards Celaeno, and she stopped her singing. “The sound of a harpy’s voice is said to be more beautiful than the most skilled voice of eunuch. I do not think I believe this anymore. Your song is no more than that of a newly hatched bird, croaking for its mother. You have had a thousand years to practice your art, siren. Is this all you can produce? You have spent far too much time listening when you should have been singing. If you had the gift of your sisters, I would tell you to go out into the world. No matter how much the world had changed, even if it no longer loved heroes and no longer cared for joy in music, you could survive. But you have clearly wasted your time here. What good, then, is listening?”
Celaeno turned from him, and went to the edge of the cliff. She looked down at the rocks, where her sisters had chosen to shed the gift of immortality. She wondered at their choice, which seemed more inviting now.
Instead, she sat, and stared into the gentle ocean. The sea had grown calmer since she rescued Odysseus, and the sky was dark, not from storm clouds, but from the veil of night. She began to sing, but the notes of her song only served to choke back the sobs that emerged from her throat. She let the music that came from her voice grow soft and fade away, and she let her tears fall into the ocean.
Odysseus said nothing. He walked to the other side of the island, and drank some of the dew that was still on the flowers. He was ready to wait, and to sleep. He had an eternity to prepare for.
“I doubt you can even fly,” said Odysseus, snorting. “Anthemusa is a long way from the mainland.”
“I carried you to the island,” said Celaeno.
“You barely made it to me,” snorted Odysseus, who was apparently still listening to her. Celaeno did not respond.
Instead, she walked to the ledge where her sisters had sat before they had thrown themselves into the sea. She looked up at the sky, which was clear and black, and then out at the ocean, which seemed to be almost as still as glass. And then she looked down on the rocks where her sisters had thrown themselves when Odysseus had first passed by their island. She could see many bones on the rocks below her, but she could not tell which bones were those of her sisters. The sea had stolen any trace of identification from them, leaving them all bleached as white as death itself.
She stepped off the edge of the island, and fell forward to the rocks. Odysseus, though he had cloistered himself away from her, saw her action, and laughed. He had known what fate she would pick.
His laughter did not last, for Celaeno did not allow her life to be snuffed out upon the rocks. She spread her wings and rose up into the air, and the only part of her to join her sisters were a few errant feathers.
Odysseus cursed at seeing his clever prediction come undone. He raced to the edge of the island where Celaeno had taken flight, and digging his hands into the dirt he pulled up a few smooth round stones. He threw the stones at her, hoping to summon up just a small portion of the might that he had possessed when he was a hero and a favorite of a goddess-but the stones flew much too short and much too low, and not a single one threatened Celaeno.
It was Celaeno’s turn to laugh now. Anthemusa grew small and distant, before disappearing behind the horizon. For a moment, then, Celaeno was joyful.
But the joy was not to last. She soon felt her wings growing tired and heavy. She no longer was flirting with the clouds, but was instead growing closer to caressing the waves. She struggled to lift herself higher, but failed. She looked back, hoping to see that Anthemusa was still within her reach, that she could still return there if she tried-perhaps even swimming. But Anthemusa was gone, and Celaeno then realized she could not find it even if she could swim. She had no point of reference-all she could see was the clear blue sea.
So she dropped into the sea, and felt the ocean’s icy grip begin to take her, just as it had taken all the sailors that she had seen die. She felt it drinking the heat away from her, and with her wings already tired from flying, she did not resist. She let the ocean claim her.
But then she felt hands, all over, clasping at her feathers and holding tightly on her mouth. She opened her eyes-just barely, as the saltwater stung fiercely-and saw before her dim forms, dark and blue and green.
“What are you doing, daughter of songs?” a voice, or perhaps many voices, asked her, as she felt hands cupping around her ear and heard sibilant whispering. “Feathers cannot help you swim.”
Celaeno closed her eyes as tightly as she could, for the stinging of the saltwater was growing nearly unbearable. She felt fingertips travelling along her eyelids-the fingers were cool and soothing, and she found that the pain was seeping away. The hand that was placed over her mouth moved away, and Celaeno found that she could breathe the ocean’s water as easily as she could breathe the air of the sky. She could see clearly now through the waters of the sea, and she saw that all around her swam the children of the ocean, or, as mortals called them, mermaids.
“Why have you left your home, song sister?” asked one of the mermaids, whose voice rang out like the sound of bells.
“My sisters died, so I sought to leave my home, and see how the world has changed while we were singing.” The saltwater hurt in her throat, but she found that she was able to tolerate the sting. “They flung themselves against the rocks of Anthemusa when the ship of the hero Odysseus sailed by our island and they were not able to lure the crew to their doom.”
“But you did not end your life,” said another mermaid, whose voice was like the plucking of the strings of a harp, gentle and sure.
“No, I did not,” said Celaeno. “But I think that I should have. When they were still alive, all I did was sit and listen while they sang, and thus I proved myself worthless. And now, because I did not listen, I have failed again. I can feel that I am still drowning, despite whatever you have done.”
“This is true,” said a third mermaid, the last of the trio. Her every word was tinged with melody, and her face shone with radiance that lit up the darkness of the sea. “But, you do not have to drown. Unless you really desire to drown.”
“You do not want to drown, surely,” said the mermaid whose voice was like bells. “You are a siren, and you have watched many men drown on the shore of your home. Why would you want to drown?”
“Why would I not?” asked Celaeno, as feeling and sensation left her fingers and toes. “I am worthless. I am useless. My voice is either sharp or flat, and my sisters were always in tune. Men who sailed by our home spoke only of them. I could not even fly across the ocean and escape Anthemusa, and now I must die alone, for I chose not to die with my sisters, as I should have.”
“Perhaps no one heard your voice when you dwelled on land,” said the sister whose voice was like the strumming of a harp, “but know you are in the sea. And you do not have to drown. Come with us, and we will listen to your voice.”
“I am afraid,” said Celaeno. “My sisters looked down on me, and the hero Odysseus mocked me-will you all not just do the same?”
“We will not,” said the sister whose face was bright. “We will always, whether your song is flat or sharp. We will help your song grow strong and beautiful, better than your sisters. And even if your song is always flat or sharp, we will still listen, if you will only come with us.”
Celaeno closed her eyes, smiled, and nodded. She felt the three mermaids converge on her, and she felt hands tugging at her wings. She felt her feathers being pulled away, but she felt no pain-only the slightest of pressure. Her feathers spread out into the sea, each dark and silvery, and as they floated they changed, darting out like fish. When she opened her eyes, the clutch of the ocean no longer held onto her throat, and she found that she could move as easily as the three sisters could. Her feathers were gone, having formed a school and swam away, and in their place were scales, green and blue.
So there are no sirens any longer. But there are mermaids, and the song of the mermaids are as beautiful as those of sirens. And Celaeno sings whenever she wishes, and people do listen.
* * *
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Write! And keep writing. Even if you start from a very simple idea-- maybe just an image or set piece in your head-- it can end up taking you to amazing places by working out from it-- or by trying to figure out a way to work up to it. This story, for example, was inspired by the fact that sirens are described as having bird features in the Odyssey, but end up having fish features in most art.