The are no songs floating from the ocean waves anymore. They've all fallen silent, the seas have grown still, and the earth mourns to the depths of its bones. I feel this in the air and the wind around me and although the men all rejoice I sit alone on the hillside and mourn. The winter storms will come and they will beat at the land and bridge the gap between water and earth and all we will ever hear is the roaring of the wind. There will be no distant cry, haunting, colder than ice, to herald in something greater than this reality, a land beyond that no mortal will ever see. There will be no mournful song drifting with the seagulls, a chance to lure away the mortal kind, a wild song of words we cannot understand and emotions we can only yearn for. We mortals do not understand what we have lost. We see only the bones and the rotting ships far below on the ocean floor. We do not see the sirens.
I made my choice, long ago, under a sky bathed by the moon and on a hill that marked a boundary few dared to cross. I made my choice when I put the knife to my skin, cutting ancient oaths into my forearms and sealing them as lonely days passed in vigil as the wounds healed into scars that set me apart forever from humankind. The sirens are of the other world. The mortals are of this world. I am of neither. Blood sealed me away.
I stand on the edge of a cliff, feeling the wind whip around my naked body. I've shed everything of the mortal world and a moment I will shed even mortality itself. They've gone away and no one can follow – not without sacrifice. The scars on my arm gleam white under the harsh sun and I remember that dark night and the blood so red it was almost black falling in steady streams across my fingers and onto the ground, the earth drinking it up and telling me secrets in return.
No one will understand why. The men rejoice that the sirens are gone. I mourn.
It is two steps. Two steps and I twist to watch the earth slide away, out of my grasp. My last look at the earth that has sheltered me for so long. I strike the water with the back of my shoulders first, the impact of the water like a rope slapped across the skin, and then the rest of my body follows, folding up from the impact as the cold fingers of the ocean drags me down into the depths. The current is strong here and I close my eyes and let it take me into its arms, twisting me here and there, throwing my mortal frame against the rocks before pulling me away, eagerly, sucking me down into its maw. I feel it whispering, examining this prize, and it caresses the scars on my arms. We know each other. I open my mouth, exhale, and deliberately breath in, filling my lungs as far as they can go with the salt water. It burns like fire and I remember the knife on a moonlight night and wait for the pain to go away. The ocean is gentle now, lowering me deeper as I drown, cradling me like a lost child. I open my eyes for one last second and see light dancing on the surface, very far away, and then it fades from sight and my soul is lost to the waves.
I wake in a garden. It is dark and I can see no stars, sun, or moon. The sky is like a hand cupped over the earth and the light streams from some unknown point – blue-hued and sickly. The grass beneath me is wet and pale and the earth smells tainted. There are plants huddling in uneven rows, clinging to each other with branches coated with moss and slime, decaying roots clutching the poisoned earth. I stand slowly, flexing my fingers and finding that I feel more or less whole. My body is dead, I know this for a fact, the ocean carried it far away and will keep it safe until only the bones remain buried under the sand. I cannot go back. The scars on my arm are still there, my mind remembering what I looked like in life and giving it substance here in this place beyond the world I knew.
The trees rustle as I walk by them and their broken fingers reach for my hair. I ignore them and go on. Somewhere, deep in the heart of this dead place, is what I'm searching for. It is silent save for the moans of the trees, crying in their agony as they die from the inside. Up ahead I see a wall of vines, choking the barren trunks and forming a barrier that circles back and spreads as far as I can see. I walk towards it, putting out one hand, and the vines twist and grasp eagerly for my fingers. My eyes flit up towards the top of the wall. Beyond, I can dimly see the silhouette of a tower. There is a brief flash in my mind's eye and I see the streaked image laid over it of coral and jade and pearls embedded around the windows. I see the sunlight striking it. Then the vision is gone and I see the streaks of grime covering the crystal windows and the tarnish from neglect crumbling along the etched lines.
The vines welcome me as I climb onto them, hands grasping their knotted bodies and toes digging into their squirming limbs. As I climb, they wrap around me, growing more insistent as I near the top. It is getting harder to pull free. I'm breathing harder now and I can hear my heart in my ears. I died for this. I will not be stopped, not when I sacrificed my body and have no way back. One lashes around my ankle, pulling taunt, and I jerk my leg savagely, trying to pull free. It strains and then another joins it, and another around my wrist. The vines are squirming aside, creating a hole, and my footing is suddenly gone. I fall with a sharp cry and land in the depths of the wall and watch as the tainted light is closed up bit by bit as the vines cover up any sign that I was ever there. I struggle, twisting, but more and more lash around me and bind me tight. What happens to a soul trapped in the other world? I scream like an animal.
It is a song that answers me. The vines grow still, relax, and then silken hands reach through and wrap around my shoulders, cupping my upper body gently and drawing me forth from the mass and onto the grass on the other side. I kick helplessly, trying to put some distance between myself and the wall, my breath coming in short gasps. My rescuer kneels above me, my head on her lap, and she looks down in bemusement. Her hair is pale gold twined with green, her skin translucent, and her ears are like coral. A beautiful woman at first but I see the claws on her hands, the skeletal points to her body where the skin is wrapped tight against bone, and the reflection in her eyes shows me the last moments when water filled my body and sucked away all life.
"We have not seen a mortal soul here for a very long time," she said softly, "Those days are over."
I sit up and turn to face her. Her kind does not desire my kind – we remain cordial enemies. Womankind against womankind is a brutal thing hidden by the barest remnants of civility and I am twice as dangerous as I have walked hidden paths and learned the secrets of the earth. But this is her domain. I incline my head respectfully.
"I have come to find out why," I reply.
"You should have stayed in your realm, alive, rejoicing like the others."
She stood and walked away, her spindly ankles weaving through the dying grass and her hair floating like a cape behind her. I stand and quickly follow, not wanting to be left behind in this place.
"These gardens were beautiful once," I say softly.
"Very," she agrees, "Before they started to rot."
"What is the source?"
She stops and turns. Again, her eyes meet mine and I see another life, another man drowning as she croons her song over his fingers that clutch at the water for the last time before surrendering to her seduction.
It is a simple reply and for a moment I am too stunned to understand it. By then she is walking away again and I have to hurry to keep up with her. I notice she is walking in the direction of the tower.
"You've left our world," I say, "Did your queen do this?"
"Aren't you glad to have us gone?" Her tone is curt.
"Most are. But there are some who realize that some things should not be lost from the world and I – "
"Killed yourself because you believe this too. I know."
"I had to find out why somehow." My tone is defensive.
"Then go to the tower. If you can drag our queen out of the decay she's brought upon us than we will rejoice and take your soul to where it belongs. If not." She shrugged. "Then you join her."
She's walking away again and this time it is in the opposite direction as I need to go. Her time with me is done. I face the tower and quietly steel myself. I had not expected for the queen of the sirens to be the reason… honestly, I had not known what to expect. But this did not seem to be one of those things I would have considered.
The door is open at the base of the tower. Vines have started to creep in and have torn one of the massive gates off the hinges. I see shattered glass along the floor, broken mosaics, and the blue light is more subdued here. There are shadows that are not shadows, lurking with a life of their own in the corners, waiting for a time when they can venture forth and lay their blanket of silence even deeper onto this realm. I have heard the sirens sing, once, when the storms raged and a wild song rose from among the wind in defiance of their power. She was perched on rocks not far from shore, her hair whipped into a frenzy and her cry was like the wild birds, a fearless heart that could never be tamed. Such a song should not be silenced.
The stairs lead me upwards and I feel the coral and stone crumbling beneath my bare feet as I climb. Several times I am forced to stop and let the stones simply drop away, leaving holes in the stairwell that I have to jump across before I can continue. It grows more narrow as I climb and I feel the shadows breathing on the back of my neck, questioning what my goal is and what I hope to accomplish by coming here.
To bring back the siren's song. To make my death worthwhile.
They fall quiet at this answer and I find myself before a barricaded door. The carvings on the front are of sirens singing and combing their hair beneath the sun while sailors cling to the rocks they perch on. The depressions are caked with mud and the added depth turns the entire scene skeletal and ghastly, like a battlefield where soldiers learn there never was a real victory to be had. I put my hand to the door and speak gently with the wood and gilt, asking if it would let me in. It answers me, sorrowfully, and says that it has long missed the caress of a hand and would welcome any creature, even the soul of a mortal that does not belong here. They part and what little light that has followed me up spills into the room.
She's sitting alone in the center, her hair covering the floor around her in knotted strands, vines bursting up from the floor to mingle with her dry and cracked curls. I walk carefully, watching where I put my feet. Her head is bowed and the only glistening ornament I see is her crown, pristine gold upon her drooped head. She wears a gown that is stained and torn and her jewelry is tarnished. I stop at the edge of the circle of her hair and walk along its diameter until I can see her face.
Her eyes are closed and her breathing is soft. I can see the veins beneath her skin and she looks as if she is made of paper. I kneel.
"Your majesty," I say and I try to listen for my heartbeat. There is only silence – the heart is a wasted thing here and the breaths I take are out of habit only. So I count them, listening, and after long moments have passed the queen stirs.
Her eyes are blank. They are white, the pupils and iris gone and when I meet them I see the death of the world, the death of the oceans. The fish dying on the beach, the animals dying in the sea, and the sky raining fire and the earth turning to ash and the waters parting as red as blood. I gasp and tear myself from this horrible sight.
"Why have you come?" she asks and her voice is hollow and brittle like ancient bones.
"To bring back the songs," I reply. She drops her head and closes her eyes again.
"The songs are gone," she says and she resumes her death-like stillness. I am dismissed. I do not move.
It is more long moments of waiting, of listening to my futile breathing until she notices that I am still there.
"You may leave," she said and this time there is an edge to her voice, like many voices combined and hissing their impatience.
"I have come for the songs," I say.
"Go on to the lands of death. You do not belong here."
"I will hear the siren song again before I do."
"It is gone!"
She rises in one fluid movement, her legs rising from the ground and tucking against her stomach so that she floats in the air, her hair ripping free from the vines and twisting in the air like spider webs. They lash around my shoulders, tug at my skin, and I remain on my knees and do not look away.
"I have come to hear the siren song," I stubbornly repeat. I do not know what I hope to accomplish but I will not be turned away like this.
"It is gone and dead and we will never sing again!"
She lunges at me and her hand closes around my throat and I feel her claws in my skin. I see her eyes for one brief second and I see the gardens. Her hair smells like the poisoned earth.
I grab her wrist with my own hand; find her grasp surprisingly strong for how emaciated her arm is. Her claws are digging into my neck and making it hard to speak, her hair is a mad thing around me, lashing against my skin and leaving bleeding cuts in its path.
"Some songs cannot die," I managed to gasp in defiance, "Yours is one of them!"
I feel the scars on my arms burn like they did the day I made the oaths that separated me from mortality. I see them open, raw and red and see the blood slide down my wrist and onto my fingers before it drops onto the ground, crimson specks that spread across the dusty floor. The siren queen's fingers convulse and I push her arm back and away and then stand. I am taller than her now. She screeches, a wild cry, and I wrench on her arm and throw her aside.
She hits the wall, her crown clanging off at the impact to spin across the floor. It settles at the feet of another siren, the one who rescued me from the vines, who is now watching from the doorway. And the siren queen's hair settles to the ground, as still as its mistress now. We both watch as her body sinks in itself, becoming dust, becoming nothing. I find I cannot speak.
"The crown cannot go unclaimed," my once-rescuer says and I slowly turn. She is bending to pick up the only piece of light in the room at her feet. She lifts it gently and just as gently places it upon her own head, raising her chin so that I can see her face and see the crown of the sirens upon her brow. I kneel.
"A queen who has forgotten how to sing is a queen of ours no longer," the siren says, "May her soul find the lands of the dead. And long live the reign of the siren queen."
I am the first to bow and acknowledge her majesty.
I stand outside the tower, watching the blue half-light grow stronger and the vines start to recede. Her majesty is standing behind me as the sirens swear their loyalty to her. The earth doesn't smell as sickly as before and the branches of the trees are starting to shrug off their burden of decay. This place will recover. The sirens will no longer be imprisoned by their dying queen's madness.
"There is no gift I can give you," the queen says from behind me. I do not turn.
"There is none I desire."
"We cannot restore you to life. Your body has been claimed by the waves and what you have done is final."
"I know," I whisper.
"Then tell me, what can we give to a mortal before she departs our land to where the dead lie?"
I turn. Her eyes tell me of the storms in the winter and the blinding sheets of ice.
"I would hear the siren's song," I say.
She lifts her voice and sings. Another voice joins in, and another, their voices blending into a dissonant tone that unsettles the mind and draws the heart at the same time. I close my eyes and sink to the ground, my spirit body no longer having the strength to support me. I feel everything slipping away, fading into dust until the only thing that remains is the song, following me on my last fall, wild, haunting, and cruel.