Fiction · 03/20/2019

Da Capo al Coda

I’m only humming, not singing with my whole throat and mouth, not letting the vibrations emanate even from my sharp, pearly teeth — yet still, the boat comes nearer, and the people on board don’t seem to know why. I stop then, and watch, as they shake their heads to dispel my influence, and the boat gradually resumes its original course.

I have given up the old-school siren thing. I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard. There is something primal and perfect about bearing my breasts and wings to the sun as I dig my taloned feet into a rocky outcrop, surrounded by ocean spray. I’m in love with my own voice, at least as much as my victims are. I think this is true for all sirens, though I doubt they’d admit it.

I spread my wings now, beating the air as I rise into the sky and leave this partial relapse behind.

+

It’s not that I don’t use my gifts at all. I can make my body appear the same as any mortal woman’s, and I do. I don’t sing, but people seem drawn to me anyway. And I don’t deny myself everything. I only try not to destroy anyone. That is the difference.

Not all siren victims are destroyed, or then again, that may not be true. My father still lives and is actually still married to my mother, but he’s not completely whole either.

It’s possible that he lives because he has his own gift. He, himself, is the son of a siren (and so my gift is doubly strong). While only women are sirens, my father’s gift for storytelling seems to come from that immortal blood. When he takes out his lyre on a Saturday night after a few beers, the birds, the moon, and the neighbors all drift close to listen.

As children, my sisters and I were drawn to him even more than my mother, and he to us. We mesmerized each other. But as we grew older, less cherubic, and more lanky — even siren children go through puberty — he lost interest in us. When that happened, and he stopped telling his stories to us, we realized that his storytelling was conquest. That it did not listen or adapt. It only beat down resistance and held us close, until it hungered no more. Dad’s interest sharpened again when we came of age. All of us are beautiful, of course, in a traditional siren sense, and he sees our conquests as his own. Each ship smashed against rocks is his own triumph. Each man brought to his knees in the spell of love is a testament to his bloodline. And the children my sisters have borne he eagerly anticipated, and he tuned his lyre, waiting for them.
p=. +

I drop down out of the sky and into the backyard. Dad is grilling. Mom is gone again. She hates Dad’s stories now, perhaps because they long ceased to be about her. She could turn him toward her again, if she chose. She is immortal, and her power will not decrease with age. But she does not sing to Dad. She flies to mountaintops and lake bottoms. She sings with wrath and fury, and men and women freeze and drown to hear her.

The moment Dad sees me, he knows. I can feel his excitement.

“You’re pregnant,” he says.

I feel the kick of the talons against my strong skin, and I nod.

He pulls me into an embrace, picks up the lyre, and begins to tell a story, thrumming chords and picking melodies as he goes. An owl lands above us, and bats hang from the limb beside it. Even the stars seem a little closer, and my own heart trembles. I wonder if the baby hears it, and what she feels. Siren children are almost always girls.

He does not ask about the baby’s father. He doesn’t ask anything else. His eyes are closed now, and his focus inward. When he opens them, he scans the trees and yard to see his audience, before closing them again.

I speak up, not singing, but trying to get his attention. I ask him, when did he see Mom last, and that he hears. I can almost taste his sadness, matched by bitterness. Days ago, he says. I ask him about my sisters. He plucks at the lyre and drifts back into his own story without realizing it. I fly away again, and his story continues below me. I pass birds and neighbors on the sidewalks below, making their nightly pilgrimage to listen.

+

Mom is waiting for me outside my office building. She’s never understood my desire to work in one. She is as normal looking as she gets — no wings or anything — just gorgeous and slightly restrained in jeans and a t-shirt rather than a flowing gown, or her own naked skin.

She touches her hand to my cheek and then to my swelling abdomen, and I bask in her warmth. Her affection is like a drug. It may be the reason I never became a drug addict. I tried to lose myself in drugs, like a human teenager would, rebelling against what I was, and what my family had done for centuries, but nothing ever felt as good as my mother’s touch, and she is siren, through and through.

“Child-bearing suits you,” she says. “Do you have a name?”

We walk through the streets together, touching slightly, each feeling the pull of the other.

“Yes,” I say.

“It has been some time since any of your sisters brought me a child,” she says. “I will rejoice at this one. I will hold her in my arms and sing the strongest songs men’s ears have ever heard.”

I shiver.

“I don’t want that for her,” I say.

“You can’t deny what she is,” Mom says, arching a perfect brow, fixing her attention on me so that I squirm in discomfort and attraction, both at once. “Or what you are, for that matter. If you try, you will only bring misery to yourself and the little one.”

“Being a siren brings me misery,” I say.

She tilts her head, peering at me, trying, I think, to understand how that could be. “I hope you will change your mind, daughter.”

Right there, in the middle of a busy sidewalk, she manifests her wings, and people gasp in awe and admiration.

“But in the meantime, I will feed myself, and I will bear another child. It has been too long.” Mom flies off, and I look after her with the rest of the crowd, in a mixture of longing and frustration. She wants her own belly to feel that sharp kick again, and nature and time will not deny her. If she does not get what she wants from me, my sisters, or my father, she will get it somewhere else. I admire that, and I condemn it. She is powerful, and her power is glorious and beautiful, but she does not regret, and she doesn’t change. I want to change.

+

When Aria is born, I keep her to myself. I don’t visit my parents or my sisters. I don’t visit her father, as I have not since her conception. She is mine alone.
She grows quickly, as our children do. She learns to disguise her immortality without realizing she’s learning it. Whenever I hide wings and talons, she does as well. She goes to daycare and is their darling. We move when her growth becomes noticeable. At night, I play with her and let her fly around the house in circles. We eat raw fish and sing songs to each other. She makes up her own, and already they are more than charming.

When she is the equivalent of a four-year-old, I take Aria to the beach for the first time. I don’t consider what that might mean for her. I’m not thinking clearly. I hunger for the ocean. It has been too long.

Right there, in front of overly-tanned old men and sunscreen-slathered families, she sprouts her wings and talons instantaneously and begins to sing. My heart jumps in my chest, and I scoop her up in my arms and fly her to a remote island, rocky and cold, where I try to explain my philosophy.

Aria turns her face from mine and sings with all her might. She sings for hours. Eventually, a boat comes.

“She’s so cute!” someone calls from the deck.

“Listen!” says someone else.

Then, Aria suddenly stops. She folds her wings and hides her face in my belly.

“Go on your way!” I call, and I try to put into it a different sort of persuasion — a push to leave. The boat departs, and I sigh. Aria lets go of me and flies off on her own to a cave in the rocky cliff face. When I try to follow her, she shrieks and tears at her own skin with her talons.

I hover at the cave entrance until my wings tire, and she curls up in a little ball and sleeps.

+

I won’t leave my child. I don’t think she truly wants me gone. She only wants to test her power, her independence.

She continues to grow.

I have my own cave next to hers. I keep watch over her, sleeping when she sleeps, and protecting her from humans and humans from her. Though sirens don’t need to eat to live, I catch fish from the sea and leave them on a rock for her. Sometimes, I sing a quiet song at twilight, just for her, and I see her, hovering just outside my cave, but she won’t come in.

I long to hold her close to me, and miss the skin-to-skin days, but I won’t imprison her with my love. I won’t demand of her what she would rather not give, but I will protect her.

+

I fail. I wake with a feeling that something is wrong. It’s dark and windy. The rain beats down against the rocks. I come to my cave mouth and use my sharp eyes. A boat is broken on the rocks down below. Then, I hear what must have woken me: a cry of agony from my child, who is now the equivalent of ten years old.

I swoop into her cave, and she leaps at my body, clinging to me, digging into my belly with her talons as she wraps her arms tightly around my neck. I hold her close, giving her the pressure of my steady love for her. Then, I let her cling to me as I fly down to the rocks to look for survivors.

Aria whimpers as I bend over each of the three men from the small boat, checking for signs of life. This will scar her, but she should learn what the aftermath is, and how to deal with it. She needs to know.

There are no survivors, and I ascend to my cave with a heart heavy but full. Aria clings to me still. She continues all through the night, shivering against me when she wakes and letting me rock her and sing to her as I did when she was small.

+

When the gray light of morning sweeps slowly into the cave, Aria wakes. She disentangles herself from me and flies in the direction of her own cave. I want so badly to hold her. I hunger for it, but it is easier now to let her go. I know she needs me, and I can wait.

It isn’t so long this time. After a few hours, Aria returns to me.

We are shy with each other at first, so unused to talking, so unused to each other, but both of us, I’m sure, remember those days of freely flowing communication.

Finally, she asks me questions. Who is her father? Where is he? Can I tell her again, the story of our people, the sirens? Where are the others? Do we have to kill people? Had I killed people?

I answer all of these, as best I can.

Then, she says, “What should I do?”

And I shake my head. “I won’t tell you what to do. You have to choose. I can tell you what I think is right. I have done that. But you have to choose.”

We agree to fly back to the mainland. We choose a new place and hide our otherworldly features. Aria goes to school and I go to work.

+

For now, I see that she has chosen to abstain from using her siren gift. I do, too, and we are a sober household when it comes to that. But the laughter comes back, eventually, and the music.

We sing softly to ourselves and each other. When one or both of us feels that more powerful urge well up, we go to remote cliffs, frozen icebergs, mountain peaks, and we sing there in all of our immortal glory. But we don’t sing long. Not long enough for people to get pulled to even those places. We don’t do what my mother does, and we don’t stay long enough to encounter her.

To help us resist temptation in our daily lives, we avoid my parents and sisters, and our extended family, by mutual agreement. When we are both healed, stronger perhaps, we will see them again. I miss them, when I think about it. When I feel my song well up in me, I feel how it ties me to them — especially to Mom, but I’m strong enough not to go back to her, so far. I do tell Aria about her, and Dad. I even tell her some of Dad’s stories, and that’s not so bad.

I don’t know what the future looks like. There is no singular oracle as there was in my ancestors’ time. There are bits of truth scattered all over the world, and you have to put them together yourself. Will Aria and I always be good? Will we always be good to each other? I don’t know. But for now, that is what we choose.

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Emily Livingstone is a writer, mom, and teacher. Her work has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Gravel, Atticus Review, Jellyfish Review, The Molotov Cocktail, and others, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She tweets @Emi_Livingstone.