Rated R, for all the weaknesses of flesh (and how it tears between teeth).
We roll into town on a bright sunny morning, steering the Caddy around the half-dozen streets that make up “downtown.” Three of us in the back dozing and the other two up front with our arms hanging out the windows, letting our fingers ride on the fall air.
We love autumn. Autumn is football and soccer and tennis season, it’s harvest festivals and Oktoberfests and the last round of carnivals and fairs. We can still get away with tank tops and shorts, or we can wear our tight wool suits with their snug skirts, or our sweaters with the necklines way, way down.
It just depends on what there is to do around here.
We roll the Caddy into two parking spaces and we pile out, lounging against the car and sizing up the people, reading the flyers posted on windows and utility poles. Free movie nights, a potluck, two spaghetti feeds, a reading at the library. When we find the town fair poster we groan in disappointment: it’s two weeks away.
“Hey,” we call out to a passing kid. “What’s there to do around here?”
The kid looks us over, his round little face intrigued and suspicious.
“Big game’s tonight, over at the high school,” he says, scratching at the back of his calf.
The big game. We sigh with pleasure. We love big games, and their parties afterwards. Big games are easy; we’ll be spoiled for choices.
The kid squints at us. “Where’re you from?” he asks.
We crouch down to study his rocket ship t-shirt and his cargo pants with bulging pockets, his oversized sneakers, his rosy-cheeked face. These boys, they’re a blur to us until their voices break, nothing but sticks and snails and puppy dog’s tails; we love them because of what they’ll become.
“We’re sirens,” we say, smiling at him. “We’re from everywhere.”
Big games mean guys from other towns, with two, maybe three parties afterwards. Big games mean the red suitcase, not the blue or the grey. In the red suitcase we have the high school clothes: the miniskirts and tennis shoes, the t-shirts and the lipstick as red as the cherry slurpees we grab on our way to the field. In the red suitcase we have five denim jackets with a patch on the back that says SIRENS, because for the big game we’re always an out-of-town gang, tough girls from some generic City that turn heads and make the adults scowl and whisper, make the mothers especially suck their teeth in disapproval and the fathers agree though with a gleam in their eye, a gleam that remembers what it was like to be a teenage boy watching the tough girls and wondering if it was all true, what they said about tough girls.
We take our slurpees and we climb up to the top of the bleachers and sprawl there, our bare legs loose and splayed on the warm metal, the wind ruffling at our skirts. We slurp our slurpees with our pursed red lips and we hum, just loud enough for the wind to hear.
We hum the call of Hades, so he’ll be ready for his new arrivals.
And as always we pause and listen. Sometimes we’ll hear an answering melody, like a shepherd’s pipes, or a farmer suddenly bursting into song, or a radio starting from out of nowhere. But though we strain to hear there is only the rumbling of the crowd and the blaring loudspeaker announcing names.
It’s been a long, long time since we heard an answer.
But we are sirens, and someone has to sing.
We settle in to wait as the game kicks off, scratching the bumps of our wings against the railing of the bleachers, our legs tangling pink and olive and brown as we play footsie with each other. We sing in whispers of other sunny days spent waiting, watching games being played, watching cars and horses passing, watching our meadow-grass bending in the wind or the surf crashing against our rocks.
We have been this way a long time, and some time, and not long at all, for all times are then and now and everything between. We will be and we have been and we always are, and that’s all we need to know.
And damn, but we love us some cherry slurpees. One of us farts and some of us titter and we slurp until our straws are sucking air. The final whistle is like birdsong and we sing in response: it’s time it’s time it’s time.
We join the crowd hanging around the school afterward, nodding to the guys as they pile out of the building, shower-fresh and slapping hands and swaggering. We love that swagger, we love the dewy hairs on their napes and their still-flushed skin. We sit on the gold-colored hood of the Caddy and poke and kick at each other and we feign boredom while we pick and choose like they’re sweets in a shop.
The girls give us side-eye looks and the guys mutter and snigger and we’re humming our song, our dangling feet kick in time with it, our fingers drum it on the warm metal. When they start to disperse we call out, “So where’s the party?”
One guy walks over to us and he’s already a man, filled out and stubbly, and we see the girls watching him watching us and our hum changes to a contented trill. Oh he will do. Oh he will do us nicely.
“Where you from?” he asks.
“The city,” we say with a shrug.
“We’re visiting her aunt out here. Got sent to the boondocks to straighten us out.”
“It was either that or juvie.”
“You guys gotta do something for fun.”
“We haven’t been to a good party in ages,” we finish, to seal the deal.
He looks us over, appraising just as we appraised him, but we titter because we know we’re assessing very different things.
“Jason’s dad is out of town,” he says with a twitch of his head. “We’re gonna pick up a couple kegs and go out there tonight.”
Two of his friends have sidled up behind him, their pads and helmets dangling from their hands; the setting sun torches their faces so we can see their very skulls.
“So you’re in a gang or something?” one asks, his voice full of fake scorn, as if the thought doesn’t make his heart race.
“We’re our own gang,” we say. “We’re the Sirens. And we like to party.” We hop off the car, dusting our skirts so the hems flutter around the tops of our thighs. “Give us the address and we’ll meet you there.”
They confer among themselves and manage to come up with a pen but no paper; we sigh and take off our jacket and hold out a bare arm. The big one, the man, writes the words in rough strokes along the soft inner skin, and while he leans in close we whisper our song in his ear, the one we love best, and he trembles and drops the pen. When he bends to pick it up we spread our legs a little, our skirt brushing against his face as he stands.
“We’ll see you there,” we say. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Uh, everyone calls me Big Mac,” he says, red-faced.
At once we fall about laughing, we haven’t laughed this hard in ages. Both a song and a meal! We feel the threads of fate close around us, we sense our meandering path become the purposeful soaring of flight. Still snickering, we hum the first notes: two all-beef patties . . .
“Of course you are,” we say. “We’ll see you soon, Big Mac.”
When we show up to the party we park the Caddy way down the road and leave our jackets behind, folding them up carefully and putting them back into the red suitcase. We like our jackets too much to risk ruining them and there will be ruining tonight.
Instead we put on cheap t-shirts and our special skintight pants that are as tricky as chastity belts. We do our eyes dark and our lips red. In the dim light of the streetlamp our little mirrors reflect back five bloody-mouthed skulls.
We sing the song of approval, our harmonies spot-on; we sing of longago lakes and rivers and oceans and our reflections in those waters, hollow-eyed and bloody-mouthed, and how the lapping of the waves was also the rhythm of the gods’ approval.
“As if they could keep us trapped in those rocks,” we say. “As if.”
“Someone has to sing, I don’t see anyone else doing it.”
“Someone has to test their mettle.” The word mettle makes us smile like cats.
“Big H understands. Big H lets us do as we please.”
“One Big Mac for Big H, coming up!” We fall about giggling again.
We walk up the drive to the party, our arms filled with bags. We’ve come prepared: we’ve got hard liquor and weed and long pretzel sticks we can suck on, we’ve got our tight pants with their trick openings and our bad-girl smiles, and we’re ready to get this party started. Because these parties are never like the movies, there’s never shoulder-to-shoulder dancing and making out; instead there’s cliques huddled in corners sipping flat beer and smoking pin-thin joints and that just won’t do, that won’t do at all. We like dancing, we like groping and kissing, we like sweat and lust and nervousness all at once, we like a build-up so that when the time comes all of that energy gets transmuted into a spine-cracking terror that makes all the humours gush forth and tastes like heaven.
Everything else is just gravy.
Inside we turn that music up. We start dancing with ourselves while we sneak off and spike a few bottles of soda in the fridge; we light up and smoke a little and we dance to our rhythm which is the rhythm of pop songs. “You don’t get this stuck in a rock,” we tell each other, and we sing out our agreement in time with the music. Sure enough, others start dancing with us, we’re moving furniture out of the way and there’s more smoke in the air and bodies are sliding around us and now we’re feeling it, that rush of anticipation. We can see eyes watching us and we can feel bodies moving unconsciously towards us and we twist and shimmy in time with the music closer closer closer.
We are pulled aside by another boy-man who starts dancing close and we sing yes.
We are stumbling up the stairs with strong lips on our lips and strong hands on our hips and we open our mouths to theirs and into the beery chasm of their throats we sing yes.
Throughout the house our five bodies trill and we whisper, “let’s go for a drive and we can really party” and we hum in unison yes yes yes.
And we’re stumbling through a hallway, around bodies and over bodies and leading the warm sweaty hand in ours, when a door opens and a girl comes out. Her eyes are swollen and she looks like she’s going to be sick, she’s wearing her jacket and it’s buttoned all the way up.
We know about buttoned-up jackets, and coming out of bedrooms with eyes swollen from crying.
A guy comes out behind her, looking both sated and pissed off, and we ignore the one with us and instead sing to him, this Bedroom Boy, we sing to him. For we know about swollen eyes and buttoned-up jackets and we know the sweetness of surf crashing on rock and our song is Bedroom Boy are we gonna make you crash. It’s new and old all at once, it’s a song we’ve sung since we can remember and it’s a song about this boy, this night, right now.
We offer the girl our drink and she tries to take a sip but then starts heaving and we know about this too. We hum girl, we hum swollen eyes buttoned jacket throwing up, and our hum fills the house with a mixture of trepidation and delight and we start the crash song all over again.
The girl looks around, wiping at her running eyes. “What’s that weird music?”
And then it is like a movie, because the world goes quiet as we study this girl, there’s something about her, something we can’t put our finger on. When was the last time a girl heard us? Ages ago, we think; ages ago, when we were four and became five, because a girl heard us.
We call out a new chorus: she hears us. We listen to the silence, we feel the utter shock through the house, we hear the rhythm of bewilderment. Until at last we call out our response, from five mouths at once: then she comes with us.
We’re making out in some big van-car with guy-breath and guy-hands while we barrel along some dark road. The girl sits in the far back with us and she’s finally started drinking, trading gulps from the bottle and listening to the wet smacking and grunting and our feet tapping in time. We have Bedroom Boy with us and we’ve promised the girl we’re going to do something terrible to him. In response the girl said her name is Sarah, but otherwise she’s stayed quiet, sitting in the far back with us, a wary expression on her face.
“So you’re like a gang or something?” the Sarah-girl finally asks. Her eyes have stopped running but now she’s wiping her nose over and over.
“We’re sirens,” we agree, taking another long swallow.
“Like the Odyssey, right?”
Fear makes us convulse in a long body-wrenching shudder that spirals out into the night, following the threads of fate that connect all the sirens we have been and will be, so that everywhere and everywhen we are shuddering, in cities and villages and open plains and rocky coasts, aloft on our black wings or still stuck in the mire of this world singing yes come to us yes, we all to a one shudder.
Oh, we have not thought his name in so long.
We still don’t know—we’ll never know—if the gods turned us into rocks because he lived, or because we tried so hard to make him die.
If there’s one thing we learned from that time, it’s that the gods are bastards and never, ever to be trusted.
To suffer so, for one stupid man! As if some pointless punishment wouldn’t make us mad for the world, wouldn’t propel us back into the world hungrier than ever, wouldn’t drive us to scream our song into every corner of the world.
The car squeals and lurches around a corner and the Sarah-girl looks over her shoulder. “Slow the fuck down!” she exclaims, but we turn up the radio and drown her out and go right back to fondling Big Mac and Bedroom Boy and whoever their friend is, he’s too bland to inspire a nickname.
“We’re going to die,” Sarah-girl says. She says it like she doesn’t really care; her eyes are filling again. “What kind of girl,” she asks in a shakier voice, “what kind of girl gets in a car with a guy after he treats her like shit? Not a very good one, huh?”
“A girl who wants to see him hit the rocks,” we say with a grin. “We are sirens, after all.”
“The way Mac’s driving, we’re all gonna hit some rocks,” she says, and takes another drink. “So why aren’t you with someone?”
“Oh, we’ve got all we need,” we say. “We could even lose the boring one, he’s just gravy.”
She frowns at this. “What’s with the we shit? Is it like the royal we?”
The question makes us go quiet again. First a reminder of him, now this question; we pause in our groping and lean in close, because this is very serious. “There is only we,” we explain. “We are one and all, we are in time and not, we are past and present and future. We are sirens.” We lay our hands lightly upon her, wondering at that strange feeling she exudes: of something becoming, something about to burst free. “No you, no I. No doubts or differences. No family save ourselves. Only we, together, singing.”
“Yeah, sure. Pick on the freak, I get it.” Her lower lip trembles. “You know, not everyone like me has a shitty family, we’re not all dying to join some weird hivemind clique. But no, go ahead, have your fun.” She takes the bottle from us and drains it. “Hope you’re proud of yourselves.”
Her every word thrills us. We look at her and we see ourselves as we were before becoming this: that unknown longing, that sense of our self being an ill-fitting suit, until at last we heard our song.
How cute she would look with lovely raven-black wings, clawed at the tips, feathers stained with blood!
And then we feel it; we nod at each other across the car. It’s time.
We sing. We sing the song of offering and the guys snigger and call us wannabe rock stars and we sing harder, so hard we drown out the radio. We sing our song, the song of come and get it, the song of you know you want it, the song of crashing against rocks and falling headfirst into waves of grass and groping us in dark van-cars, all because they’re hearing the song they’ve longed for.
The van-car jerks left, shooting off the road and barreling into something hard with a sound as loud as an explosion. We reprise the song of offering, as beautiful as always. More explosions and the guys are screaming in time with our song, the car hurtles into empty space in time with our song. We seize Sarah-girl and burst through the glass, unfurling our wings as the car falls away below us and crashes against the rocky hillside, shattering and bouncing and then finally landing in a steaming heap below.
In our arms Sarah-girl screams and screams, clinging to us with a good amount of strength. All things we like in a girl: this death-grip and her lusty wailing. We spiral downwards like the mighty vultures we are, our song that of flesh and appetite and the underworld. Deep and rich, this song, it comes from our bellies and makes our thighs tremble. Sarah-girl too goes quiet and we croon our thanks and settle on the ground at last; when we let her go she curls her knees to her chest and starts rocking back and forth. And though we say nothing we hum to each other the rocking remember for we all rocked so in our time, just as we screamed the first time we tasted sky-air, just as we gagged the first time we bit into raw flesh.
All so long ago as to be a story.
We toss aside the remains of our t-shirts and bras and stretch our wings to the cool night air. We take a moment to pin back our hair, straight and curly, thin and thick, and then we set to work. We drag the bodies out of the wreck, one after another, bloodied boy-limbs contorted and folded, heads at odd angles and bones jutting from flesh. One’s still moaning and we start with him, falling upon him with clawed hands and hungry mouths and when he stops moaning we hear another sound, a rhythmic keening that we rather like, and we all look at Sarah-girl who stops both rocking and keening as our five faces turn to her and her eyes roll up and she falls over in a faint.
We cradle her between us, this Sarah-girl, and we take a mouthful of Bedroom Boy and we chew it into a soft pap and then we kiss our sleeping Sarah-girl, easing his warm soft flesh into her mouth, and we stroke her throat and we sing the song of becoming until, with a jerk, she gulps it down.
We coast on the wind until we’re circling the Caddy, loving the starlight and the lights below, how many starlit nights have we flown so? Over mountains and beaches, pitch-black villages and cities like a million scattered jewels gleaming. Gone are the days when we can safely soar in sunlight, and we croon a soft song of regret and time before slowly returning to earth. Our wings disappear, becoming ridges beneath our flesh once more. The party is still going on, we can hear music drifting down from the house. As we drive away into the purpling dawn our sleeping Sarah-girl sprawls atop our laps in the back seat. She stirs and whimpers baby-like and we stroke her thick black hair and we rub her narrow back but we feel nothing.
Why are there no bumps forming?
We look at each other, confirming how it was for each of us: first the feeding of pap, then the wings, then slowly the loss of I and the sweet emergence into the warm mind-nest of us. How long did it take? We cannot remember exactly, but it doesn’t feel long, it doesn’t feel like it took long at all.
Confused, we peer at her more closely, our hands exploring. Only then do we realize that her breasts are padding; only then do we feel what lies between her legs; only then do we realize what lies nascent in our Sarah-girl is not any likeness to us but the rising question of who she really is, for our Sarah-girl is very much a boy.
We drive and we drive, all night and all day, pulling over only to piss and switch seats. We drive as if something were following us, as if we were being chased to the very ends of the earth. Or at least across state lines.
We cannot sleep. We slouch, silent and pale, watching and not watching Sarah-girl in her uneasy slumber between us, her head rolling and flopping as the Caddy sways. We whisper to each other, “it’s a test, they’re just testing us, she’ll change or crash anytime now,” but we do not believe our own words.
When she awakens, she merely looks at each of us, then turns and watches the unfolding landscape, as tense and as silent as we are.
And though we dare not admit it we are, each of us, flexing elbows and knees for any hint of stiffness. We turn our palms this way and that way, we slide our feet in and out of our shoes thinking to glimpse any hint of cold greying. For that’s how it came upon us last time, sneaking in like a chill, creeping through our bodies while we went about unsuspecting, until we realized we could neither run nor fly nor even touch one another, not even just to give a last brief comfort . . .
Watching Molpe’s face vanish in a wall of stone, and I could not even say her name . . .
The Caddy lurches as we steady ourselves. But it cannot be unthought. That I-shaped crack in our defenses.
We make our hands into fists and keep driving.
Until at last it ends, as everything does, for we’re running out of gas.
In this town it’s convention time: the streetlights are festooned with banners proclaiming it, the bus stops have posters proclaiming it, there are lunch specials for convention-goers and vacancies for convention-goers and cheap parking for convention-goers. There’s a snap in the air and a river running right past the hotel, and there are lovely balconies with flimsy railings and blind curves of traffic and pathways that veer close to the jutting rocks of the riverbed. We look at the rocks longingly and we hum remember, for we long to be back where the grasses wave in the breeze and the sea sits glass-smooth and empty; we touch each other and softly sing how it was, in the cool grasses beneath the warm sun, our wings drying and our bodies drowsy, singing simply to hear our voices in the world.
We should be opening the grey suitcase which contains our wool skirts and silk blouses, we should be combing our hair smooth and pinning it in such a way that it can tumble free the moment the pin is withdrawn. Instead we’re standing around the Caddy in a deserted parking lot because Sarah-girl is huddled half-in and half-out of the backseat and we’re afraid to touch her, even as we long both to hug her and break her neck.
Sarah-girl says, “He didn’t deserve that.” She has said this many times since we pulled off the road. It’s a song we know, the one of guilt and remorse, but we never sing it because it has no end.
She says, “Okay, yes, he was a homophobic asshole, but I mean, in a way I kinda led him on, and you can’t just kill people for being homophobic assholes.” Then, small, “can you?”
We shrug; when she looks at us expectantly we say, “it doesn’t matter what he was, Sarah-girl.”
“Some hear the song and crash, and some don’t. Swings and roundabouts.”
“Sometimes they’re nice, sometimes they’re assholes.”
“What is constant is that we sing, Sarah-girl. Someone has to sing—”
“So this is what you do?” She bursts in before we can continue. “I thought you were like, like temptresses or something. But you’re just serial killers.”
“We don’t kill,” we snap at her. “We only sing.” It’s all we can do to keep from shaking her, why won’t she understand? She heard us and she’s still alive and she hasn’t changed; we could turn to stone at any moment. What does it matter what we are?
We are sirens. As we have always been.
We realize then that she’s cringing, maybe even about to scream, so we take a deep breath and say more calmly, “all we do is sing, Sarah-girl. We sing to those who want to hear, whose fates lead them to us.”
“You sing to men,” she says in a smaller, trembling voice.
We sigh at that. “Women crash in other ways.”
“And I heard you,” she says in her smaller voice. “And I, I’m—”
“We know,” we say, in perfect chorus.
“Are you just going to kill me, then?”
The vision fills us at once: piling into the car and pinning her while she screams and cries. Breaking her neck, one swift wrench and then the sudden silence. Her body in the trunk, the suitcases piled in her place on the backseat. A swift tumble in the river at nightfall.
“We only sing, Sarah-girl,” we say again, but we can hear the quaver in our own voices.
She wrenches her jacket more tightly about herself and we find ourselves mimicking her, wrapping our arms around ourselves, unable to look anywhere but at her. “So I’ve heard you, and I’m alive, and I haven’t turned into some winged murderess,” she says. “So then I’m nothing, right? Not one thing or the other. So maybe I can, just, go home?”
We only look at her.
“You let Odysseus go. I mean, he heard you and he, he lived . . .”
But her voice grows smaller as she speaks, she can see our anger, and at the lived she starts to cry. We hate her now, we hate her tears and her smallness that reminds us of when we were I, we hate her for reminding us of him, we hate her for going to that party like an idiot, what was she thinking? As if they wouldn’t see her as something to bully and abuse, as if the world has changed that much.
“Homer never sang what happened to us, Sarah-girl,” we say coolly.
“He never cared about any of us. Only Odysseus, Odysseus, precious Odysseus.” We sing the name out in a whining screech.
“He didn’t even bother to count. There were more than two of us on that ground, we can tell you that.”
“Precious crafty Odysseus who made us fail for a joke, for his own cleverness.”
“Do you know what happens when you meet Hades empty-handed?”
We crowd around her now, our shoulders itching, our wings straining at our shirts and our hands balling into fists. “We’re never failing again!” we yell at her. “Do you understand? We are never failing again!”
“Please don’t!” Sarah-girl cries out, throwing her arms over her face. “Please, I don’t want to die!”
Her voice brings us up short, as swift and sure as if she struck us. For those were our words, then, our single voices jangling as we fell, our limbs stiffening and our bodies suddenly so cold. I don’t want to die! Our tears streaming down our faces, our song thin and weak from our closing throats:
All that I had left undone,
All that I wanted,
All that I hoped,
All that I longed for,
All that I was, I don’t want to die!
Our body-prisons, our caged minds and their lonely calling: blindly we fling our arms out, each feeling for the other, even as we come back together in a rush of awareness that leaves us breathless.
In the back seat of the Caddy Sarah-girl is still crying, oblivious to everything but her own fear. There were others before this, others with women’s souls in men’s bodies or men’s souls in women’s bodies, others who were children of Hermaphroditus or claimed no sex at all. Every time they crashed or changed. Why now, why her?
What are we supposed to do?
We start to hum the song of crash but it feels wrong, it feels like we’re singing it to ourselves.
Instead, we do the only thing we can think to do.
“Damn it all,” we say. “We need a drink.”
We dress from the grey suitcase, silent and grim, scraping our hair back and twisting it violently, gouging our lips into pencil-sharp bows begging to be undone. We turn our attention to Sarah-girl then, managing to prise her out of her jacket and into a cardigan, though she keeps clutching the jacket to herself.
“You’re our intern,” we tell her, and for once she simply nods.
We go to the convention but in truth we don’t care, we don’t care about the men in their off-the-rack suits with their little name cards clipped to their jackets and their identical folders tossed about. We barely notice them drinking their beers and liquors, we wince at the din of their bellowing voices, and we go up to the bar as silent as if we’re already lost.
But before we can complete the phrase, we start babbling other names.
“Glass of cabernet.”
As we speak, our minds flicker in and out, so we are buffeted by moments of dark loneliness before we are one again, and we cannot meet each other’s eyes.
With a sigh, we add, “One Cosmopolitan.”
At the last we all look at each other, astonished, until we realize it was Sarah-girl speaking. She shrugs, frowning at the bar. “What? I’m underage.”
We elbow her and step on her foot. “You’re our intern,” we whisper loudly. “You can’t be underage.”
“I can be whatever I want to be,” she retorts.
“Get her a Cosmopolitan,” we say to the bartender, only to shake our heads.
“Let her choose,” we say.
“She’d be better off with a beer.”
“She’d be better off with a Shirley Temple.”
“We could get her a coke in a little glass, like it’s a rum and coke—”
“I want water,” Sarah-girl interrupts, and we grumble in our irritation. “You don’t have to do everything alike, you know. Do you all even like Cosmopolitans?”
Our confusion and sorrow suddenly looms large before us, even amidst the bustle and noise of the bar. One by one our drinks appear, so many shimmering colors and shapes, and do we all even like Cosmopolitans? We cannot say—we dare not say, lest we fall apart, lest our differing selves somehow lead us to fail.
What would happen if we just walked away?
Where would we go, what else could we do? We’re sirens. All we can do is sing.
We take our drinks and knock them back and smile gamely. Around us the men are looking, looking and we make ourselves return their gazes, make ourselves run our fingers around the rims of our sweating glasses and steal cherries that we bite free of their stems, feeling the sickly sweet syrup fill our mouths, tasting for all the world like the blood of a day-old corpse.
“Let’s get to work,” we say.
They wear cheap suits and polyester-blend ties that just-so-slightly clash; they smile at us with whitened teeth; they comb their hair over the first patches of bare skin and give themselves little bangs to hide the creep of their hairline. They drink beer and scotch and whiskey and the younger ones do shots.
The convention has something to do with leadership and millennia and these things bore us so we hunker down into a shoal of couches and wait, drinking, hoping against hope that Sarah-girl will start to change or keel over dead and end all our doubt and misery. But she only sips at her water with a big straw, her eyes darting around the room like a cornered rabbit.
“She’s our intern,” we tell the men when they ask about her. We hold out business cards. “Siren Enterprises. We’re human resources.”
The words are like code, it’s just enough of an excuse, they plop down on our couches and we manage a half-hearted hum while they chatter on about their companies and their roles, their workloads and their successes. All encoded like the songs of birds. Only we cannot help wondering, now: does any of this matter? If we weren’t here, would they find other ways to crash?
Through the birdshit-spattered windows we can see the sun setting, we can sense the crowd becoming drunker, sense fates sliding and intertwining — or are we imagining it all?
But we need to begin, if we’re going to do this.
There are four men perched on our couches, their long arms extended behind us and our empty glasses crowded on the table; a fifth hovers nearby, his head turning at every laugh, eager for an excuse to join us. The piped-in music has gone from light jazz to something more brisk, tugging at our memories of earlier bars and filtered sunlight and hands that want to stroke our knees but aren’t yet emboldened. We’re wearing our stockings as strong and dense as spiderwebs and our wool skirts are tailored tight and our silk blouses are open one button too many for decency.
We try to sing, we try to find the rhythm of this offering, and we’re just humming the first harmonious notes when Sarah-girl suddenly giggles. Loudly. One of the men whispers in her ear again and she bursts into a braying laugh that makes heads turn.
As fractured as we are, as faltering as we are, to a one we narrow our eyes and mutter in unison, “if she changes, that laugh will be the first thing to go.”
As if sensing our irritation, one of the men says, “how about we take this party elsewhere? Friend of mine has a suite upstairs, he said to bring anyone looking for a good time.”
We feel it then, we feel it at last, that sense of fates coalescing, of wind in the grass and the crash of waves on rocks, and we smile and sing out in unison good time good time good time.
In the elevator the music is a tinny samba and we find ourselves singing along, we sing of hot sun and sand and glassy-smooth sea. The men smirk and one tells us “you girls should start a band” and from behind us Sarah-girl mutters “oh please.” Another guy whispers to his friend “what else can they do with their mouths, huh?” and now it’s our turn to smirk because he’s about to find out, but before we can sing to Mister Curiosity Sarah-girl says “you are so the gravy, pal” and despite all our fear and misgivings we love her for that.
The music coming out of the television is all thumping synthesizers and the liquor bottles are heavy in our hands and the cocaine up our noses burns like the rising sun. The men stumble against us, laughing, they’re pulling off their ties and whispering bad words in our ears as they try to dance to our rhythm which is the rhythm of late night grooves. We sing along with the mimed images on the screen, dark syrupy words about grinding and riding and whipping and shackles and thighs and wet wet lips.
The men push our skirts up and bury their snotty noses in our cleavage and if they weren’t so drunk we’d do something about that, we’re wearing silk after all, but they are very, very drunk and it’s almost time. We sway and watch and sing out crash baby crash uh huh. When the first one stumbles to the balcony doors and flings them open we sing mmmm let’s do it and when two start yelling at each other we sing hit it sugar and soon they’re rolling and punching and the wind gusts in and our shoulders itch with anticipation and we sing out to Hades she wants it, she wants it all to crash—
and then we realize we cannot see Sarah-girl.
We wedged the hallway door shut when we came in, because no one is leaving this party, and it’s still wedged shut so she cannot have gone far. Come and jump on it yeah. We check under the bed, humming uh-huh uh-huh: no Sarah-girl. We check the closet don’t stop get it get it, we check the balcony I got it goin’ on, and then we seize the handle of the bathroom door and sigh for it will not move. We egg on the fight and we grind against a man on the balcony and we crouch by the bathroom door and whisper, “Sarah-girl.”
“I’m not coming out,” she says from the other side. “There’s a phone in here, and if you try anything I’m going to call the police.”
We glance at each other, at our loose hair and our red-smeared mouths and our blouses that we’re unbuttoning to let our wings unfurl. “We can’t kill you, Sarah-girl. You must change or crash—”
“I don’t want to fucking change or crash!” she yells. “I want to go home!” She takes a heaving breath and we know she’s crying again. “I thought you were helping me, I thought you were on my side. But you’re just psychopaths.”
“We only sing—” we begin again, irritated.
“So you say,” she bursts in. “So why am I here? Not because of some stupid rules, not because someone’s making you do this. I’m here because you’re all batshit, you’ve all lost the fucking plot.” Her voice is rising, it’s drowning out the men and the music alike. “I’m sorry I ever heard you, I’m sorry I ever went to that party, I’m sorry I was ever born!”
We open our mouths to reply but a man seizes our arm and jerks us upright, his face a snarl as he tries to kiss us and we sing out crash but we’ve messed up, we lost our focus and we messed up. The men swarm around us grabbing and groping, crushing liquor-sticky mouths to ours and trying to wrestle us onto the beds and we remember this, their hands like iron and their weight and their hot stinking breath on our skin
and then we feel nothing but our anger, pure and cold and vast as the night sky
our wings erupt from our backs and we whip the first man off the balcony, sending him sailing into the night with an echoing howl
rattling the bathroom door singing Sarah-girl come out come out but it’s jumbling with the song of crash and our harmonies are jangling and sharp and we drive the next man into the mirror crash
lamp cord strangling the third man we bite and wrench him crash
there’s one screaming between the beds they’re everywhere like rats stomp them out crash
with a cry we throw our weight against the bathroom door feel the flimsy lock snap and tumble inside
Mister Curiosity falls over the balcony good-bye gravy
thump-thump-thump from the hallway door and wump-thu-wump goes the television and Sarah-girl is jamming the phone buttons in time with the hallway cries and our singing crash and it’s all messed up we messed up
and suddenly Sarah-girl sings
she opens her mouth wide and sings a song we’ve never heard before, a song of light and dark, of crashing and flying; she sings of sunlight on deathbeds and regrets cast aside and hands that hold yours in that last coldest hour, and from all sides there is song, radios and car stereos and a drunken singalong and a thousand voices belting out an anthem across town
and we’re just sirens and somewhere it all went wrong.
The hall door shudders on its hinges and then my mind becomes pin-small, dark and jumbled with memories, and as the door gives way I stumble blindly onto the balcony and out into the air, my wings barely catching the current as I drag myself skyward. So many memories, all the Aglaopes I have been, so many night skies and blood-tinged breezes and oh! I am so small! so meaningless! Around me the others are flapping, struggling to stay aloft, and though we look at each other there is no more we, there is only I and you and you and you and you
and I remember now how I found Raidne annoying and Thelxiope stuck-up, how I desired Molpe but dared not touch her, how I admired Leucosia’s wit but envied her closeness with Molpe
and my wings ache, they feel heavy and stiff, and when I hold my palms up to the moonlight the skin is grey and firm, and as I begin to fall I watch the moon recede from me, the very moon is turning away from us. Great hands of earth rising to seize us, fingers of stone closing over us, and the last thing I glimpse is Sarah-girl peering down at us from the balcony with pale wings unfolding and I say never again but I cannot
In my stony cocoon I dream of Sarah-girl, grown tall and broad and so, so strong, striding through her life without fear, her winged shadow sheltering all she chooses to love. I dream of her red lips and her death-hooded eyes and those strange pale wings, and as I dream my tears dry upon my cheeks and my fists loosen and I start to smile.
We are sirens.
And perhaps we failed again, or perhaps the gods are just bastards; perhaps Sarah-girl was nothing but a test, or perhaps she is what we were meant to be; but we will be and we have been and we always are, and we have a bone to pick with little miss I don’t want to change or crash.
Do they really think these rocks can hold us? Oh, they can cage Aglaope and Molpe and Leucosia and Raidne and Thelxiope. But we have been we for a long time now, and we haven’t forgotten how we made the very stone about us vibrate, how we hummed and trilled and moaned and slowly coaxed from our prison walls a shuddering not unlike a song.
We’re sirens, after all. We sing.
And when we finally free ourselves, when we finally shatter the rock around us and feel our mind once more as vast as the sky, when at last we stretch our wings and raise our fists and bare our teeth at Hades himself—
when that happens? We’re coming for you, Sarah-girl. And we are going to make you crash.
About the Author
L. S. Johnson lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. She is the author of the gothic novellas Harkworth Hall and Leviathan. Her first collection, Vacui Magia: Stories, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her novel remains vexedly in progress.
About the Narrator
Abra Staffin-Wiebe loves optimistic science fiction, cheerful horror, and dark fantasy. Dozens of her short stories have appeared at publications including Tor.com, F&SF, Escape Pod, and Odyssey Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, where she wrangles her children, pets, and the mad scientist she keeps in the attic. When not writing or wrangling, she collects folk tales and photographs whatever stands still long enough to allow it. Her most recent book, The Unkindness of Ravens, is an epic fantasy coming-of-age story about trickster gods and unlikely heirs. Enjoy an excerpt at: http://www.aswiebe.com/moreunkindness.html