I first remember hearing them when I was seven. They’re the reason no one goes swimming in Lake Tamesis. It’s a beautiful lake, with clear, deep blue water that goes green when the sun hits it just right, the foam cresting on the waves that kick up in the wind. The rocks that lead down to the shore have eroded into smooth, pale pebbles, and those who are brave enough to venture that far down do so barefoot. A few summers ago, some kids got drunk on Miller Lite from the local tackle store and dared each other to go out past the warning signs, wading in deep enough to cover the tops of their knees. That was the first drowning in over fifty years. Some say it was the cheap beer, others the kids’ underdeveloped frontal lobes, but I know. You can hear the songs some nights, turning up the radios on screened-in back porches to drown them out. The sirens called them in.
That summer was marked by me moving in with my grandparents. I’d never met them, and, outside of the fact that I knew my mother had to have come from somewhere, didn’t know they existed. My mother never talked about them, but I didn’t yet know why. The social worker had introduced us in one of what seemed like an endless stream of white-walled rooms smelling of antiseptic I kept finding myself in after my mother died. I tried to tune out the details of the car crash as they went over them again with my grandparents; I could recite them from memory at this point. The roads had been slick and the driver had been drunk and it was all very unfortunate. Apparently, the only saving grace was that I had been too sick to go to the store with her, so she left me at home with a bowl of soup and the number of the friendly older woman next door. It had been her who called the police.
The first night in their home, my grandmother tucked me in under a hand-knit quilt, flicking the hall light on so I wouldn’t be scared. I lay there, listening to the puttering sounds of her and my grandfather having one last cup of coffee in the kitchen, trying to convince my body it was back in my bedroom at home, when I heard them. It started off as soft humming, and I almost thought it was a train coming down the tracks that lay hidden in the woods. Then it seemed to click, and I could make out the voices, as if they were calling to me. I swung my feet out of bed, creaking on the old hardwood, and my grandmother was at my door in an instant.
“Do you need something, dear?”
“The voices?” I wasn’t even sure what I was asking.
“Oh, don’t let it bother you. It’s just the wind coming in through the trees. Go back to bed, now. Would you like a glass of water?”
I think she would have kept them from me if she could, but in a town like that, secrets are impossible. You couldn’t buy a loaf of bread without hearing one woman or another sneer about the sirens stealing her husband, and all the older kids would crowd around the back of the gym to see who could tell the worst horror story. I was told they were evil, that they drowned men who came too close, pulling them under with the lure of their sweet songs. No one knew where they came from, or how long they’d been there, but they were as much a part of the town as any one of us.
My grandmother used to drop me off at the library for story hour when she did her grocery shopping. She had forgotten the trick of keeping a child entertained at the store, and I didn’t do much to help her my first few months there. It was near Halloween, and Miss Dithers, the librarian, was telling us a story about the sirens to frighten us a bit. She told us these were bad creatures, that they looked like beautiful women and tried to convince happy men to come out to sea and abandon their families, but that it was a trap, and they killed them. Miss Dithers’ husband had recently left her. According to her, they were slender with long, wavy hair and full hips. I think the idea that it took something attractive to lure him away was comforting to her. She told us about the absolute power they had, and how they were completely in control of themselves and everything and everyone they wanted.
I was confused. What was wrong with power? What was so wrong with these creatures having complete control, the ability to do whatever they wanted? My mother had taught me that a woman deserved control of herself, of her own body. That was the reason she had left my father. He had thought he owned her in some way because he’d put a band of gold on her finger. Sometimes my mother would put it on just to show me how it wore her skin green after a while. I raised my hand from the back of the mat, and I could see the hesitation in Miss Dithers’ eyes as she called on me; I’d learned since moving to her hometown that my mother had left a reputation behind her. She’d never fit herself into the space the people around her felt she should, and so she had left as soon as she was able. I carried her eyes, and, apparently, her temperament.
“Why do we only blame the sirens?” I could see her confusion.
“The sirens. Why aren’t they allowed to have power?”
“It’s story time now. We’ll discuss this later.”
We never did discuss it, but she must have told my grandmother, because she sat down next to me on my bed as she tucked me in that night.
“Will you make me a promise, dear?” I wanted to ask what it was. But I nodded. “Listen to me. You must never go down to the water, alright? The sirens are evil things. They are not creatures of beauty. They will draw you to the edge with the very thing you want most, and then, they will pull you under. They will drown you, and I won’t be able to save you.” The last part I heard as a whisper when she got up to shut off the light. “I can’t lose you as well.”
I could hear them arguing after she left. My grandfather was mumbling something about nightmares and me being too young, but I didn’t know why he was worried. My mother had never thought me too young. When I did go to sleep, my world was a swirling black-grey, and women with tendrils of hair floating around their faces like seaweed surrounded me. They smiled, razor-sharp teeth gleaming, but I felt no fear. When they grabbed at my wrists, I went eagerly, kicking myself further down into the pitch-darkness of the water. I could feel my lungs screaming in my chest, but just before I woke up, it began to sound like a song.
I started taking swimming lessons the summer I was eight. My grandmother had signed me up for classes, but the instructor wouldn’t let me go to the deep end. So I started pocketing the cash my grandmother gave me for him and learning on my own. I would swim out to the deepest part of the pool and dive down until I reached the bottom, feeling the rough concrete against the backs of my thighs. It was hard for me to stay seated flat down there, so I began sneaking out two cans of the homemade peach preserves my grandmother kept in the cabinet and tucking them into the waistband of my suit. Then, I’d hold my breath for as long as possible, waiting until my vision started to turn black around the edges and my lungs felt like they were going to explode. Sometimes, if I let it get bad enough, I could convince myself the kicking legs under the water were the tails of sirens welcoming me home.
Once I reached third grade, we started having siren safety classes in school. Once every month, a Fish and Wildlife officer would come to our classroom and teach us a course on the dangers of sirens. Step one: Stay out of the water. If you weren’t in the water, they couldn’t hurt you. Then they’d start to teach us some proper mental techniques to ignore their songs. With our eyes closed, we were supposed to take a breath in, then let out all the air in our lungs. Once we could feel our stomach touching our diaphragm, we were supposed to start listing the names of all the people in our life, taking a breath for each. A breath in for Mom, a breath out for Dad. A breath in for the kind man that works behind the counter at the bakery, a breath out for the girl that sits three seats back that you have a crush on. Each name was supposed to ground us to the here and now, remind us of why we shouldn’t let them take us. I sat in the back of the class, running my tongue along the disappointingly-flat edges of my teeth and wondering why everyone was so convinced that these creatures were evil.
The songs got louder in the winter. Some said it was because there were less souls to corrupt. Others said they had to sing louder to be heard from under the ice. I just lay in bed, listening to the songs. I had started to map out my room, learning every creaky floorboard, so that I was finally able to make it to my window without alerting anyone. I’d sit in front of it and stare off in the direction of the lake. I couldn’t see it from our house, but it was there in my imagination, and I’d convince myself that the sirens were up at the rocks, staring back at me.
I got a bike that Christmas. I’d convinced my grandparents that I wanted to learn to ride so that I no longer had to take the bus home from school. I spent all of winter break learning, and even though she protested it was too cold, my grandmother let me ride to school the first day back. As I rode home, I turned off the small, ill-used dirt road blocked off by the rusted barrier gate everyone ignored. There were a few abandoned beer bottles, an umbrella with a hole in it, and a smooth white shell that I pocketed. I rode all the way out to the edge of the hill, stashing my bike in the tall grass that lined the top of the cliff before it sloped down to the beach. The wind was brisk and strong, and the water was covered in white caps. I couldn’t see anything beneath the surface, but something told me they were there. I don’t know how long I stayed laying in the grass, but the sun was further down in the sky when I finally stood.
I put the shell on my nightstand that night. As I lay still and the songs began, I held it up to my ear, and I could hear the rush of the water behind their voices. It was surging and powerful, heady and intoxicating. I fell asleep with it tucked against the curve of my ear, and when I woke up, there were distinct marks along the side of my face, the ridges of the shell like scales against my skin. Fascinated, I brushed a finger along them, pressing the shell to the other side to try to get the same imprint. It was fainter, and it faded quickly, the white press turning back into smooth skin. There was something disappointing about it.
I went to the lake at least once a week. The sirens never surfaced, but when the water lay flat and glassy, I could see them moving around as shadows under the surface. The light reflected like jewels, and I imagined they all wore crowns of sunlight. I didn’t understand how there could be any darkness about them. I began to wear my mother’s ring again, staring at the golden sheen when the light hit it and pretending it was my own set of jewels. Still, I never fully broke my promise. As I got older, I got closer, but I never set foot in the water. I spent years standing on the shore.
Those years were also spent on the edge of society. If there was such a thing as inherited social pariahdom, I was most certainly a victim. This town was the kind that sucked you in and made it hard to leave, and as such, parents remembered my mother and took their prejudices out on me. I never received a single brightly-colored paper invitation to a birthday party, was never inducted into the secret society that was girls’ sleepovers, and when our school finally decided we were old enough for dances, no one awkwardly cornered me in a hallway to ask me to one.
To make matters worse, my grandmother still insisted I go. I remember spending many nights in poorly lit corners of gymnasiums, trying not to choke on the fumes from the entire can of hairspray she had laced my hair with while tugging awkwardly on the glitter-covered polyester dress she had grabbed off the sale rack at the local Goody’s. Every now and then, in a fit of good samaritanism, one of the unlucky teachers who had been selected to chaperone would come over and ask me about my classes or offer to buy me a cup of lukewarm soda from the refreshments table. I eventually fine-tuned a system that could get rid of them in two minutes flat, though my record was forty-five seconds.
While being forbidden didn’t inspire romantic declarations, it did inspire other teenagers eager for their first taste of defiance. In high school, I spent at least one afternoon a week behind the gymnasium with person after person, all of whom thought the secret to being a good kisser was too much teeth and an abundance of spit. They rejoiced in their rebellion while I tried to convince myself it was a palatable substitute for the one I truly wanted. I swore the sirens sang louder on those days.
Eventually they grew tired of me and cast me off for real relationships with the kinds of girls whose hands they weren’t afraid to hold in the halls, or who their parents would invite over for dinner, and as I watched them, an unfamiliar ache began to grow in my chest. I began to want, what exactly I wasn’t even sure. They all seemed to have a sense of belonging, and for once, I found myself wishing I belonged as well.
My supposed salvation came from a stranger to town. He didn’t have my history to hold against me, and he seemed kind and sweet. He would take me on walks, picking up smooth, weather-worn rocks that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand and gifting them to me. I would cradle them and think of how they felt so different from the golden noose my mother had been given. He kissed me one day, sweet and slow, as if he was asking for nothing in return, and I began to think that maybe staying here, on dry land, was worth it. Then his touches became more demanding. He was insistent in his kisses, shoving himself into me when I didn’t want him. He said that it was what people like us did, people who loved each other. This was a new meaning of love for me.
One day, he pulled out a black velvet box. Inside was a band of silver, not gold. He said it was a promise that there would be a better band one day. I thought of my mother’s, how it turned her skin green, and I thought of the green-skinned creatures that lived under the water. I thought of my future with this man, of having to give whatever he wanted because he saw me as his for the taking. And I thought of my mother, how she knew she belonged to no one. I thought of her courage to abandon the place she knew was not her home, no matter how many fought to convince her it was so.
And so I went.
I ran down to the shoreline, stripping myself bare as I went. My clothes were flung somewhere behind me on the shore, and as I stood at the edge of the water, I took off my mother’s ring, looking at the green it had left behind. All I kept was the shell, clutched in my palm, making ever-familiar scale marks against the soft flesh. I ran in, diving as soon as the water was deep enough, and I saw them for the first time. They were beautiful, pale green skin dappled by sunlight, teeth sharp in grins, and I laughed as they grabbed me, the sound bright in my chest. They sang with it, their voices a harmony to the burbling in my throat, and pulled me down, down, down into the darkness. It settled over me like peace, and as I opened my mouth to sing, I felt my tongue catch against the edge of a sharp tooth.
Abigail Wright (she/her) is a writer who was born, raised, and has somehow ended back up in small town, Kentucky. She received her BA in Writing from the University of Evansville, and mostly writes short stories and creative nonfiction, but has been staring down the barrel of a novel for quite some time. She loves how words help bring people together, and is trying to use them to put her world together.
photo by Anna Goncharova (via unsplash)