After the initial seasickness wore off – I spent many long hours hanging off the side of the ship, let me tell you – I quickly decided I needed to befriend at least one of the sailors. Being a lone woman can be intimidating and having at least one person I knew among the crew would make the journey easier. I chose David for his honest features, youth, and unconquerable spirit. You know – the optimism that tells a man he can climb any mountain and slay any dragon. Folly, I believe the gray-heads call it.
David was easy to talk to. I'd stand on the deck, shawl wrapped around my arms to protect from the sea wind, and he'd be hanging onto the rigging, repairing some knot and talking about this and that, how the stars direct us and how to find north (which I already knew), and about all the denizens of the deep.
He told me about the mermaids and the sirens when the sky was strange. The captain was deep in discussion with the first mate at the bow of the ship and David was leaning on the edge, one hand on the ropes for balance, staring off into the waves.
"Might storm," he said, "but doesn't taste like it in the air."
I tasted and felt salt, nothing more.
"I'm on watch tonight," he continued, "Would you stay up here with me? If you don't mind, that is."
"I will stay."
I wanted to see what he meant by a strange sky, and hear more of these people that lived beneath the waves as easily as you and I live on land.
There was no talk that night. David roamed the deck, agitated, and the first mate was at the wheel. The captain had asked to be woken if anything changed in the weather. But David kept muttering that it was not the weather, that there was something strange in the sky. I watched his nervous gaze across the waves, but only saw the darkness, broken by shafts of moonlight, like droplets of silver melted into ink.
I'm not sure which of us heard the song first – myself, David, or the first mate. But I did see the fear etched on David's face and the tremor that ran across his frame.
No words. Not yet. Just a voice, drifting across the sea like the wind itself, a powerful note of ownership, pride, and… longing. It dipped, swelled, and seemed to be born of the very waves we rode upon. David had strayed to the edge of the deck and stood there, looking out. His knuckles were white.
"What is it?" I whispered to him. He did not answer. "David?"
"A – a… maybe a mermaid."
He shook his head, like he had just woken from a sleep.
His eyes were half-closed again. This time I hit him, right under the ribs, and he staggered backwards a pace, shaking himself out of it.
"Of course it's a mermaid," I snapped, "and you're staring like some forlorn calf at the waves. Think, David!"
He grew as pale as the moon. Turned. Ran for the helm. I followed, pulling my skirt up to run across the deck.
The first mate was at the edge of the ship as well, swaying as he stared. David called his name. Called again.
"It's a siren!"
The first mate straightened. My heart was in my throat with fear. That was when we heard the words.
Come to me. I call to you – my desire – I call – come to me.
He toppled. Fell. The splash of the water echoed my shriek. There were hands on my shoulders, pulling me back from the edge. I can't remember having run to the railing.
"Shh, shhh. Listen – listen to me. I can't call man overboard – he's lost – it's too dark and…"
He didn't finish the sentence. I knew what he would say. It's a strange sky and the siren is still singing. We'd just lose more under her spell.
"Why do I feel nothing?" I whispered.
Come to me my love. Come, to the waves, to the deep, I shall sing you to sleep.
David took the wheel. I came and sat by his feet. He wore a sash around his waist and he untied this, wrapping it about his wrists and then about the wheel. I reached up and made sure the knots were tight.
"Talk to me," he ordered, "The siren cannot touch you. Do what you were – keep me from listening."
And so I talked. I told him more than I'd ever told anything – about my village, about the disease that wiped out the livestock and a portion of the populace, about the aunt of mine who died alone because I was caring for my sister and could not see to her. About the son of our lord that I thought was beautiful and could not bring myself to even look at if he happened to pass by me. Would you have thought me as shy? No, David, said, I would not.
The singing was getting stronger. I could see sweat on David's forehead. Tell me about yourself for at time.
There was a girl back in his hometown. He wanted to marry her. I could tell from the wistful note in his voice that he never would though. Perhaps she favored another. Perhaps David was too long gone on the sea. Or perhaps he loved her like I loved the noble's son – from a distance and no closer. Perhaps he loved another and I wondered at why he had asked me to stay with him this night.
My gaze strayed across to the waves. Silver shimmered in strange patterns and I saw the flash of jeweled eyes. I stood, echoing the siren's song with my own voice. Because she was no longer singing to David – he was too far gone to understand the words now – she was singing to me.
Unfortunately for you, this one is mine.
Unfortunately, I claim him as well.
I call him, I call him to the deep. Where the sirens sing and his love will be forever a dream.
He will drown. Leave him be.
I am all alone. He is mine, I long, my love, my desire
She was stretching out one hand. I could see the water sliding on her bare arm, a slender creature of bone and ivory skin. Her fingers were skeletal and tipped with black claws, her face was gaunt and her eyes radiant in the moonlight. The hair was like the seaweed itself. And yet, somehow, she was unearthly beautiful. Her eyes told me a mortal could never understand, that a human could never comprehend her song.
I turned my back to her and returned to David, who had fallen limp at the wheel, his hands raw from twisting at his self-imposed bonds.
"Just a little longer," I whispered.
Yes, it does. But go and leave us in peace.
The siren was gone by the time the next watch came. David was shaken but coherent again, and he tried to tell his story in broken tones. The captain was roused and David was thrown into the brig. I was shunted aside, for what place does a woman have in the running of a ship?
The first mate and David never got along. He was too aloof to the first mate's orders and the first mate disliked his arrogance. It was a strange night with shattered moonlight and things were known to happen on the seas. David would be hanged for murder upon reaching the shore.
It was strange how things happen. I heard the siren's song in my sleep, pondering her words. Desire hurts. I didn't understand myself, I didn't understand David, and I certainly didn't know if he would go home and marry that girl and forget all of this or if something else entirely would happen. If he would look my way. Either way, the echoes of the song resounded in my head, and somehow - strange – all of it – the brig was found hanging wide open and David was gone before the ship was docked and he was taken away.
Do you think I can explain this? Tidy the story up into an epilogue? It's like the siren's song – we mortals cannot understand it. I don't know where David is. Maybe he did return home or maybe he simply vanished into some foreign city. But maybe I know now, what she meant, when the siren sang that she is all alone and that desire hurts.