IRA AND THE SIRENS
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Ira Fitzpatrick Buckett was very scared, very wet, and stark naked.
He thrashed against the storm with all the strength in him, a stick-thin, sixteen-year-old body that had been starved for weeks, beaten, and embarrassingly shaven kicking and struggling to keep his head above the violent waves as he shrieked. He wasn't screaming words anymore, words took too much energy. Gradually his cries had gone from "Help, help!" to "Hell, hell!" and now little more than "Blerph, blerph!"
That was of course beyond his control, because there's little one can do to be articulate when one's mouth is full of cold brine. The sea was merciless. It was an iron-gray assailant, fist after fist of cold salt water slamming into him with rib-breaking force, pulling him under for horrible teasing seconds before it let him come back up.
Poor Ira thrashed wildly, with no time to think of how he'd gotten into the situation, only to scream during the seconds his mouth and lungs weren't full of water. The sky loomed overhead, the clouds so thick and low that if he hadn't been soaking wet and therefore a prime conductor of electricity, he would have reached out to grab it as a handhold.
"Help me! Helbhreee!" Ira shrieked, clawing at the water before it pulled him under again, the force of the stormy ocean sending him tumbling under the water like tissue paper blasted with hurricane-force winds. Under the water was more terrifying than above it, because the howling of the storm turned into a bubbly, churning whir-hum, and the pounding of his heart and the claps of thunder, muffled by six feet of water or more, accompanied the show of the blurry lightning overhead.
Ira kicked, but his legs were too heavy. Ira flailed, but his arms were cold and numb. Ira tried to hold his breath, but his body's reflexes were too much and before he knew it he was gasping in and out cold lungfuls of water. It was a cruel parody of a fish out of water, only it was a boy in water, thin and gangly and writhing, mouth moving hopelessly as his hair clouded about him.
Ira felt a heavy current move against his legs, and felt the grip of the sea wrap around him, like two cold, clammy, strong arms, before he couldn't tell up from down. He was fairly sure he threw up underwater and was glad that that was when his vision started to fade, because he knew he didn't want to see what that looked like.
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The arms wrapped around him weren't the arms of the sea, not that he knew it; they belonged to a strong, streamlined body. His rescuer's skin was tinged blue from the icy water, and the arms and shoulders strained to keep the boy's mouth and nose above the water as he struggled through the currents pulling back, towards the distant lights of shore.
He let go of Ira near shore, perhaps thirty feet out, and to his dismay, as soon as his hands left, the boy started to sink right down like a rock. He caught the body, easing it back up with a gentle bump, and the frown slid off his face. But as soon as he nudged Ira towards shore, the boy started to sink again.
In a long and tiring process, his rescuer managed to gently nudge Ira up until he'd floated to the place where the waves were breaking, and from there, the ocean did its work. In a few gentle slushes of wave, the naked boy was on shore soundly, back and shoulders wedged into the wet sand, sound, because the tide was at high, and would go out later that evening. No worry of him drowning again.
Easing up out of the water to give the boy one last gentle nudge a few inches farther onto shore just to be safe, his rescuer clucked his tongue, and crawled up after him to study him a little in the moonlight. A cautious glance up at the dark houses of the village told him no one would see him, and the rescuer peeled off a few strands of kelp from the boy's face and shoulders.
He wasn't a handsome boy, not yet at least, but he wasn't ugly either, and he was young. Ira's face was sharp, with a straight nose and a full upper lip that followed the shape of a squashed letter M. He had a forgettable face, save for that distinct upper lip, and the cut that was probably helping to make it so full. He was pale, but badly sunburned, and his skin had the sallow, waxy look of too much sea salt and not enough food. His freckles stood out stark on his cheekbones, collarbone, upper arms, and thighs, and his hair was a wet mousy brown, clinging to his forehead over his eyes.
The rescuer pulled it back from his face gently, revealing closed eyes with long gray-brown lashes. The man smiled to himself, patted the boy on one clammy cheek, and then left him. Anyone around would have heard nothing but the light clap of hand on cheek, and then a splash.
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Ira knew he was alive, because he was dreaming wild dreams for an immeasurable length of time. The waves were washing over him in an almost steady rhythm, lifting him gently as if to wash him away, but not having the strength to pull him back out to sea, and so dropping him again. When all the dead skin was scraped off his back from the constant motion in the sand, the sun was rising red over the horizon, and the fishermen from the village were settling out on the pier and beach to cast their lines into the surf before anyone else did.
A small, middle-aged man who resembled a sloth was plodding along the shore, tackle and rod in hand, his weathered face looking for the small flag on the beach that marked his family's fishing spot. The man was skinny, but by no means frail, filling his clothes with corded muscle and gnarled, wind-calloused skin. He peered ahead to where the gulls were clustering, and with a weary bout of swear words, he waved his arms and yelled in order to scare them off.
The shell of black and white feathers cracked and fluttered off with frightened caws, revealing the small pale body of a freckled teenage boy, naked, tangled in a few long strands of kelp around his legs, and a jellyfish attached to his collarbone like a gelatinous parasite. He was unconscious, and the man thought he was dead as he knelt to pry off the jellyfish.
The fisherman tossed the jellyfish back to the waves, and straightened, calling to one of the other fishermen down the shore. "Abram!" he shouted, and the other man turned.
"'S a boy, Abram," he called, "you reco'nize him from the uptown?"
Abram approached, taller than the other man, a tanned, lined man with dark smudges under his eyes, and a spattering of wild white hair. He crouched to look at Ira carefully.
"No," he said, after a few minutes, "No, Martin, he ain't from the village, uptown or no.
He musta washed ashore in the storm last night."
"Red sunrise last morn'," said Martin, "he shouldn'ta gone out yesterday."
Abram shrugged, peeling kelp from the boy's skin, and examining the reddish patch of skin the jellyfish had imposed upon him. "Jelly sting. What kind, you reckon?"
"Jus' a little one," Martin said, "it'll itch for a bit." He was quiet for a moment, "He dead?"
"No," said Abram, then softened his voice, "he's breathin' all right."
"Sirens musta liked him," said Martin softly, an air of taboo around his words.
Abram's head shot up and he hushed the other fisherman fiercely, scowling, "you want to get their attention?!" he hissed.
Martin tensed slightly. "Well don' you go denyin' that they musta!" he said, in a terse whisper, hardly audible over the surf. "You know they tear apart anyone that go too far out in the water. If they didn't kill him, he must be special."
"Stop talking about them!" shushed Abram furiously, standing up, "The Sirens pick and choose who they want to save jus' like a plague picks an' chooses who dies!"
"What you sayin', Abram, that they pick him special? Wot's so special 'bout a skinny boy who can't even shave right? He's all beaten up, look at him. He looks like pirates got to him, or monsters of the deep. Or Si—"
Abram slapped him, "don't say it!" he hissed. Martin quieted, rubbing his cheek. A wave sloshed around their ankles, dousing the boy anew, before Abram squatted again.
"We best get him in," the old fisherman said, "'afore the tide comes back in an' carries him off."
"Well, where's you gon' take him?" said Martin. "I found him."
"You want him?"
"'As not wot I said."
"Well you made it sound so," said Abram, gently picking up Ira's limp body, "if you don' want him then I'll find a place for him until he wakes up. He'll have a fever if he's lucky, pneumonia if he ain't."
"Y'could take him to Lisbeth's house. She'll fix him up an' find a use for him."
"Lisbeth'd use him like a slave once he's come around," Abram said, giving him a look, "'at woman's crazy. She'd run the country with an iron fist if she got the chance."
"Well wot about—"
"Martin," said Abram, patiently, "I'll find a place. He can stay with me, if he got to. You got a tarp in that sack of yours?"
"I got a towel."
"That'll do perfect," said Abram, snatching the stained, worn-out towel and wrapping it around the boy's body before hefting him up with a grunt. "I'm gettin' too old fer this."
Ira's head lolled as he was lifted and carried up the beach, Martin trotting after them.
"You know y'could try puttin' him at the inn with Farleylee," he said, "She'll take real good care of him. You know how Farleylee like those younger boys," he joked.
Abram turned, "Martin, wot Farleylee like ain't none of your business."
"She run that inn fer a reason, that's all I'm sayin'."
Ira's eyelids fluttered, as eyelids do when their owner is trying to wake, but can't. His hands twitched, and that was all the movement he could manage. It went unnoticed by the fishermen.
"He'll stay with me," said Abram.
"You could even—"
"Martin, 'nother word an' I'm gon' use you for bait."
The walk up the dunes was hard with an extra hundred pounds in his arms, and the conversation lulled briefly as the men struggled through deep, slippery sliding sand and sea oats blowing fiercely in the wind.
"Y'think he's rich?" asked Martin, as they climbed up on the makeshift boardwalk. "He could be a noble, from some ship. Or evens a pirate. Wot if he's a pirate?"
"Well," said Abram reasonably, "since he ain't got nothin' on him to tell, we'll have to wait till he comes around."
Martin stopped at the end of the boardwalk, "I'm goin' down to the pier," he announced, "see if I can't get a bite or two from a fish 'stead of a boy."
"You go right ahead," said Abram dismissively, making his way into the village.
The whole town of Tidemeet was bleak, gray, and dark in the early dawn hours. The buildings were almost puritan in nature, tall and bare with sea-salt-coated timbers for siding. Some of the windows had shutters, but that was only for the fancy ones, and the wood had chipping remnants of sea-battered paint falling off, sprinkling whenever the sea breeze got strong.
A finger-thin channel of brine and blood ran down the middle of the dirt street, towards the dunes and the beaches beyond. The channel had always been there, fed by the streams from the fishing tables and the fish house, where the fishermen would bring their catch to be weighed. The whole town sat atop a bed of scrubby brush and patches of sea-spurs. The houses frowned down at him from up on their sturdy stilts, until he came to his, a small rectangle of wood that used to have been panted white, now chipped and sanded away, corroded by the salt.
Abram's wife Narissa came to him quickly at the door, and helped as he laid Ira down on the pallet inside the three-room house, pulling it in front of the fireplace, setting about getting the boy some blankets to bundle him under, settling a kettle over the fire to boil and laying a cold wet cloth on the boy's hot forehead. There were still a few kelp seeds stuck to his damp face, and his hair would be stiff and salty when it dried.
"A boy?" she said, "he can't be more'an fifteen or sixteen." Narissa was a woman graying at her temples, with a soft, cherubic face and the same lines under her eyes as her husband.
"Martin foun' him on the beach. He'll come around in a hour or two. He got a fever, though."
"The poor thing. Look how he shakes." She bent over, carefully arranging the blankets.
"Narissa, leave 'im be. "
"Get him some rub for that sting," she said briskly.
Abram sighed, kneading his temples, and went to the mantle, picking up a small jar of waxy greenish ointment, which Narissa smeared over the inflamed skin on Ira's freckled collarbone.
"Why'as he on the beach?"
"Martin says the storm spared him."
"An' the Sirens, too, if he came from the sea." She screwed the lid back on the jar and set it back in its place on the mantle. Abram slid it two inches to the right, then let it sit, happy with its position.
Abram sighed. "I don' think the Sirens—" He was reluctant to say the word, but his wife cut him off anyways.
"You see the shape that boy's in?" she huffed, "Pirates, or Sirens, or worse."
"That's what Martin said," mumbled Abram vaguely, running a hand through his thick dark hair. "He said monsters too."
"Darlin', you go back out to the pier," said Narissa, "catch somethin' fine. I'll keep an' eye on him."
Abram kissed her on the forehead, tugging his weathered old hat back on, "I'll bring you somethin' good to fry up for dinner," he said.
"'Nother halibut an' you might as well eat it alone," she threatened, but smiled in tired humor, "You bring me a mackerel."
"All right. Mackerel," chuckled Abram, and went back out, rod slung over his shoulder.
Ira woke to the smell of frying mackerel, his eyelids heavy, and his face hot. It took a good twenty minutes to open his eyes, and he finally managed to. His vision focused into the image of firelight dancing on rafters above him, a low, sturdy ceiling. His mouth watered when the smell of cooking fish met his nostrils, contaminated by the scent of salt water and sweat clinging to his skin. He was shivering from fever, and the rag on his forehead was pleasantly cold. When he felt strength come back into him, he moved gingerly, and sat up, pulling the warm blankets against his chest. The room tilted dangerously, and he groaned, putting a hand to his forehead.
He licked his lips, closing his eyes and breathing deeply in and out until the vertigo passed, balled itself up, and settled back into the nape of his neck as a dull ache. He gave a small, drowsy noise, looking around the room, having to squint slightly, because everything on him was tender and sore—senses, muscles, bones, and nerves.
"You up?" a woman's voice called, a warm, matronly voice. He jumped, startled, and lifted murky hazel eyes to the kitchen, where she was jerking a skillet over the stove, the fish sizzling as it slid neatly off the bones.
Ira's tongue felt swollen in his mouth. Everything felt swollen. He felt as if he was still saturated with water.
"Where am I…?" he croaked out finally.
"Tidemeet Township," she said, looking over her shoulder with a tired-humor smile, "in my humble home. My husban' found you washed up on the beach this mornin'. I'm Narissa Claymore...?" She ended the statement like it was a question, lifting her eyebrows expectantly for his name in return.
"Tidemeet?" he said hoarsely.
"Tidemeet, yes," she said, pulling the fish skeleton from the skillet, tossing it aside, "that's the name of the village. An' what be your name?"
"Ira," he said.
"How old are you, Ira Buckett?"
Ira swallowed, not sure he liked Narissa Claymore's questions, "Sixteen."
Ira's mouth watered and his stomach growled before he could even answer. She laughed at that, a merry laugh, and nodded. "We'll eat once Abram gets back from the fish house. You want a drink of water?"
Ira wrinkled his nose, and shook his head. The last thing he needed was more water.
"You prob'ly had enough of that, huh?" she chuckled.
"Plenty," Ira croaked, rubbing his collarbone where it itched horribly from the jellyfish.
"You get caught in the storm?"
Ira swallowed, and nodded. 'Caught in the storm' sounded harmless. More like pounded, shredded, bruised, battered, and half-drowned in the storm. Even nearly killed in the storm, but not caught in it.
"What's you doin' out on a boat in a storm like that?" scolded Narissa, as if he was boneheaded.
"I wouldn't have elected to be!" said Ira, a little crossly, scowling, "leaping off boats ain't a hobby of mine."
"You leapt off a boat?"
"I was thrown off a boat," muttered Ira.
"Thrown off a boat? Well that sounds like an int'restin' story," she replied, scraping the meat around in the skillet.
Ira's mouth tightened. "I hardly know you."
"An'? It's just a story. Ain't nobody in Tidemeet that'll ever think of hurtin' you. Martin Cordin an' his wife's been askin' all day about you. Martin's the one that found you."
His face softened, and he bit his swollen lip.
"It's al' right if you're scared a'cause you don't know where you are, young Master Buckett," she said, more gently, "but you're lucky to be alive."
"I thought I'd drowned," he said softly.
"Someone—or something—must have been looking out for you, Master Buckett," she said, with a twitch of a smile.
"Something?" Ira didn't like the sound of it.
"There's a legend on this coast," she said, "that things live in the water."
"What kinds of things?" he asked, hoarsely.