He wakes, pushes himself up to rest on his forearms, his pale shoulders jutting like scallop shells. He blinks against the blur– blue water, to no avail. Everything moves in flux, rippling in slow time. Whispers dance around him, muted echoes ebb and flow. He blinks again, tries to focus, but the world remains a curved and fluted half-dream.
He stands up, takes slow and buoyant steps toward the cavern where she sleeps. He is curious about her secrets. Standing before the ink-black mouth, he is hesitant. He peers inside then blushes, ashamed that he’s afraid to enter. He wants to call her, but when he tries to remember her name, it slips from his mind like shifting sand.
‘Parthenope,’ she whispers.
Tiny bubbles of her ripple out from the cavern. He breathes them in. His lungs fill, his veins flood with her memory, sharp and clear. Her touch, insistent, her tongue, salt-tanged and probing, his entire body, powerless, awash with her lust.
He wants her, wants more.
When she emerges, he steps back, delighted, as she shimmers around him in playful circles. Her flame red hair fans out in delicate wisps, caressing his body. She winds her way up, up, up, to his mouth and fixes him with ocean green eyes.
‘I’m awake,’ he says, heady with joy.
‘Not quite,’ she answers, ‘not yet.’
She brushes his lips, replenishing his helpless lungs.
‘It is time,’ she smiles, ‘time to decide.’
He watches as she recedes back into the darkness, leaving only the faintest imprint of her tail in the ochre silt.
Without her, his lungs begin to tire. His body starts to twitch and buck. His heartbeat quickens and a cold fear clutches him. He pushes himself up, sand grains flying from his feet. He thighs ache with effort as he surges toward the light above. He pierces the surface, heart hammering, and pulls in great lungful’s of glass-sharp air.
He bobs gently in the water until the panic subsides, then heaves himself up onto the side of the ocean to rest.
He looks down at his feet, dangling in the water, refracted, ghost-like, as though separated from his body. The scent of death floats on the breeze. A rotting carcass, pungent, ripe fish, the taste of melted plastic, oil, and fish guts fill his mouth. He gags and salt-water spills down over his chin.
He leans back. Above him, a dappled osprey soars then dives, squabbling with a rival over whitebait. He takes in the great expanse of the turquoise, cloud-flecked sky. The space engulfs him. The huge bleached sun feels hotter than he remembers. It scorches his skin. He longs for the cool, womb of the ocean.
He hears his mother’s voice and turns to see her standing on the shoreline. She is calling to him through megaphone hands. She carries the remnants of his old life in a lobster basket. Everything he knows seeps through the net. He shivers.
Far below, Parthenope strums her Lyre with a mollusc pick and begins to sing.
The music rises, drowning out his mother’s cries. Suddenly, it is as though he is newborn. He feels all things stir within him. His mind fills with unwritten poetry, his hands long to sculpt. He hears the sweetest melody. I have been gifted by the most glorious muse, he thinks and his heart soars.
Parthenope smiles. Let him have hope for a moment. This one pleased her, more so than others. She leaves him awhile, pondering the choice he thinks he has, until finally, she tires of waiting and purses her lips. She blows sweet promises through a conch, marvelling, as always, at man’s arrogance. That he thinks he should be worthy of her gifts.
He feels the crescendo of her notes rise through his body and answers her call. I am yours. I surrender.
Once it is spoken, it cannot be reversed.
He watches, mesmerised, as his feet web then shimmer in the dappled water. He closes his eyes, takes his last breath and plunges forward into the depths of the ocean. His mother cries out to him from the shore, but her words are lost on the breeze.
Parthenope emerges from her cavern, glistening with promise. He swims into her arms.
‘I’m awake!’ he cries.
‘At last,’ she whispers, smiling as delicate bubbles rise from her mouth.
He waits for her to brush his lips. Instead, she pulls him to her and begins to bind. Around and around, she twists, red tendrils of hair gripping tighter and tighter, fingers of kelp curl and knot around his body, tethering him to her.
He gasps for air. The gifts she gave him seep from his mouth. She laughs, low and melodious, then swallows them all. He struggles, his eyes large with fear and longing.
After a time, he succumbs, like the others who came before.
Everything begins to move in flux, rippling in slow time. Whispers dance around him, muted echoes ebb and flow. He tries to focus, but the world becomes a curved and fluted half-dream.
Parthenope hums to him gently, until his eyes grow dull.
Kathy Hoyle loves to write Flash Fiction and Short Stories. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary magazines including Spelk Fiction, Virtualzine, Ellipsizine, Lunate, Cabinet of Heed and Visual Verse. She has been both long and shortlisted in competitions such as The Exeter Short Story Prize, Reflex Fiction, Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize, Flash 500, The Strands Flash Fiction Competition and Retreat West Novelette-in Flash Competition. Recently took Third Prize in the HISSAC Flash Fiction Competition. She is a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee.
Kathy is currently working on her first novel powered by tea and chocolate biscuits. You can find her on twitter @Kathyhoyle1
photo by Tim Marshall (via unsplash)