HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
Lisa Lo Paro
I always lamented the ones who escaped. We knew they would die afterward, slayed by Scylla. But my sisters and I always regretted having no hand in it, failing to do it ourselves. He, the one they call the glory of the Achaeans – he would have made a welcome addition to our garden.
Our garden chokes with asphodel, and beneath them are the bones. When they go, we bury them beneath the field of flowers. We return them to the dark earth. Men wage selfish wars, and we offer them what all proud warriors crave: death.
Few have passed us unharmed, and even fewer have been allowed to sail past Anthemoessa unassailed by our voices. We’ve lived here for eons, the four of us, watching the seas. Once, centuries ago, the waters were constantly speckled with ships, ships with skinny, billowing masts, ships full of men. We watched these ships. Watched the men. And sang.
Yes, very few passed unharmed. Only one, if we are being boastful.
We’d known him before the wind brought him to us, we’d known of him since Chaos, and so we waited, eager to see if he would succumb. That is the only variable hidden from us.
In the waters we waited, our slim legs slowly sprouting shiny scales so we could swish in the shallows, hold hands, and hum. As we hummed, the waves answered us with soft undulations, carrying our prey toward us. We didn’t lift a finger, or a fin – yet. We simply waited, arms entwined, the four of us: Molpe, Peisonoe, Thelxiope, and I. Aglaopheme. The sirens.
The wind and the waves are both our allies, and ours to manipulate. Men think they control the seas with their monstrous wooden boats, but they are undone by a soft-skinned creature with flowers in her hair.
On that day so many years ago, the wind and the water both did their parts before ceasing, and my sisters and I dropped hands, prompted by the familiar tangled structure of wood and cloth riding the now-calm seas. Odysseus and his men on board were furling their sails. Stopping by our isle. Our smiles grew in unison.
We know man’s worst fear: that it is not the women who are weak. Susceptible. Temptable. That it is actually them – the ones who put on shining metal and destroy each other for worlds – who are frail at heart. Men are afraid they are the weaker sex. So on that day, prompted by the gods and by our duties and by Odysseus’s keening wails and lustful heart, we sang.
Come hither, Odysseus, glory of the Achaeans, we sang. Stop your ship and listen to our voices. For we know all the toils and pains endured in Troy, and all else that passes on this fertile earth. We know it all.
Yes – that part of the songs is true. We know everything, all that has happened since the first light grew from the darkness, and all that will happen until the sun consumes the earth. We know all. But we tell him what he wants to hear. Never has any man sailed past our isle in his black ship until he has drunk his fill of our voices. That man leaves us wiser. Come to us, Odysseus, glory of the Achaeans…
The song drew the ship toward us even as we swam closer, glistening through the water, slicing through the waves. Water sluices over our smooth skin, transitioning subtly into powerful tail, at once frightening and glorious. We look like human women from the waist up, the perfect vision for a beleaguered sailor, but the water hides our true nature – every fiber of our bodies is engineered to ensnare.
Drink your fill of our voices…
I felt the sea, a steady friend, swirl around my arms and full tail as we approached the ship, surrounding it like a maelstrom, singing all the while.
And there – Odysseus – was chained to the mast like a rabid beast, struggling against his bonds, shrieking like a spoiled child begging to be let free.
Let him free, let him free, we amended. Come to me. But the dull-faced men rowed on, fighting the calm waters and the nonexistent wind, their slick arms working tirelessly, their slack faces registering no enchantment – some dirty trick of Odysseus’. We were losing. The six men never heard us, and Odysseus could not free himself alone.
My sisters and I kept gliding, powerless and filled with rage. We’d failed in our duty to Demeter, just as we’d failed before. We remembered the feeling of failure, when Persephone descended into the underworld with Hades, where we could not reach her. We remembered Demeter’s rage, the new task she’d charged us with. “You couldn’t save my daughter from wicked men,” she said. “But you’ll spend eternity trying to save others.” We agreed – it was the least we could do.
Odysseus raged against his bonds, and my sisters and I longed to see his bones buried under the island, making our gardens even livelier. I realized then how much I truly loved it, that feeling of coercion, the ripples of power that raced through my morphing body when I witnessed the utter degradation of a man who wanted nothing more than to control a woman. I revelled in that sublime expression most men experienced when they spied us, heard our song, and believed our words. But Odysseus frustrated us all, too clever to be punished.
Soon he was gone, just a speck riding on the resisting waters, and then we knew. We could see it: he would make it back home to his wife. Eventually.
Later, Molpe, sulking in our one defeat, expressed sympathy for Penelope, for now we saw her in her luxurious home, ripping out threads and undoing rows of weaving, clever in her loyalty. We saw the huddles of men at her door, men we had no power to save her from. “At least she’ll have her husband back,” the kind Molpe said.
Peisonoe, drying her hair in the meadow and carefully arranging lilies behind her ears, scoffed in derision. “We saw how well a reunion worked for Helen.”
“Clytemnestra,” Thelxiope added vaguely. “And countless others. Those to come.” In my mind I saw the others, like a parade of sad women, all betrayed by the ones they love.
I remember adding nothing to the discussion. Sirens know nothing of marriage. We are not women, and can never be wives. We are not loved – but we are free.
Now, the seas are relatively calm. Rarely, if ever, must our foursome raise our voices to tempt boats full of weak-minded men to our shore, and so we spend the days weaving white lilies into our hair, swimming in the shallows, and tending to the lush island. On land, our scales melt into soft skin, and we’re able to live like humans, like the women we once were.
On good days, we can almost forget the atrocities committed by men: the slaughter, the prejudice, the genocide. We fish in the shallows, share the work of survival, build fires in the sand and tell each other stories of things that have passed, and of things to come. We weave flowers in each other’s hair, and when we hum, the whole island of Anthemoessa listens. On good days, nothing else exists for my sisters and me but the way the long-stalked lilies sway in the breeze; our small shelters inland, covered with climbing ivy; the calm, still waters that nurture us and allow us to live unmolested by the evils of men. No man can set foot on Anthemoessa – not without first enjoying a swift death.
We live a simple life, a sisterhood, but we never forget our duty. Our eyes are always trained on the horizon, ready to be summoned to action.
What we hope for above all is a world where we’re useless. All of us, though we rarely voice our thoughts, believe that it’ll remain a dream.
Men have sung that none pass the sirens unharmed, but that’s false. There is a way past us, a way without cheating, a way without soft wax and lashing oneself to a mast, and we’ve known many who have passed us without fearing our liquid voices. But that way won’t be revealed by us. We have our goals, and we have our duty. The rest is up to the men.
Those men who make war among themselves, not for righteousness but for trade routes and gold and power, and then blame a woman, these men know nothing of true justice. But a word – a note – from the sirens, and they will.
This story originally appeared on Visitant on September 19, 2017.
LISA LO PARO is a first-generation American who subsists on fantasy and folklore. Her interest in mythology and fairy tales has shaped her work and her worldview. She believes stories unite all of mankind in a shared need for understanding and a sense of immortality. She also loves dark chocolate and Instagram.
Follow her on Twitter: @themosthappy__