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METANOIA

Honnah Patnode

Cover illustration by Natalie Spence


Published by JLB Creatives Publishing at Smashwords


Copyright 2017 Honnah Patnode

All rights reserved.



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Metanoia

Honnah Patnode


One: She Who Was Silent

The universe was not a simple thing. Consequently, the universe did not yield to traditional expectations or societal norms. Oftentimes living things failed to recognize such a basic and obvious truth. Sometimes the most ramshackle buildings held the most spectacular secrets, and the most sophisticated structures contained nothing but dusty, bland placeholders existing without any obvious purpose and offering no inspiration or beauty beyond the first glimpse.

The sea was no exception. Glowing rays of midday sunlight drifted lazily through the atmosphere and danced atop the surface of the vast ocean which so effortlessly dominated the surface of planet Earth. They glinted and reflected on the surface as if it were a mirror, glossy and sheer and prone to showing only the superficial parts of itself, even though what lurked beneath was far more enthralling. Beneath the surface, at the heart of a little cove nestled within a small archipelago, there was a whole world teeming with life—a world which had evaded human discovery for centuries and was content to have done so. It was a perception, a stereotype, or, if one were to take particular offense to it, a prejudice that drove them to hide away from the eyes of land-dwellers and remain in the safety of the endless waters. All the people of this hidden community believed humans were greedy, short-sighted, self-serving, and altogether unpleasant creatures who had no regard for any species but their own—well, all but one.

She lay in the very center of the cove, eyes fixated on the ever-changing mosaic of blues and greens that marked the line where her world ended and another began. She had always been fascinated by that border, the fence drawn by nature and biology itself to separate her race from the humans. Many who were older and wiser than she reasoned that this was the Earth’s way of preserving the culture beneath the waves, preventing the intrusion and inevitable scuff marks humans would bring with their desire to explore and understand. Even at that exact moment, staring up at it, she was consumed by an unquenchable thirst for the feeling of air upon her skin that would only be alleviated by leaping high above the surface and launching into the world of the humans, if only for a few seconds.

A frown tugged at her lips and she shook her head, resigning herself to tracing nameless patterns onto the sand where her hands rested, splayed out from her body. One of them curled inward to brush through the short locks of hair protruding from her head. The longest strands floated carelessly over her forehead. No part of her hair was long enough to reach past the nape of her neck; it set her apart from her kin in appearance. Most of the members of her species grew out their hair long and thick enough to cover their backs and torsos, but she required seaweed wraps to achieve the same effect. There was a great deal more which divided her from her community, however, far below the thin, brittle veil of vanity.

“Cordelia?”

At once, she curled into a sitting position and crossed her arms over her chest. Her eyes swiveled from the glorious canvas of light and liquid above to focus on Nerissa, who was swimming toward her at impressive speed.

“What are you doing out here? It’s the middle of the day! Don’t you know that fisherman come here all the time during the day?” Nerissa whispered, eyes wide and filled with a muddled combination of wonder and fear. Snatching Cordelia’s wrist as soon as she was close enough to reach it, Nerissa scrutinized her with honey-hued eyes. Cordelia could not help but think of how sweet they looked in the light of day. Her chestnut hair was prettier when floating in bright turquoise waters as well; in the darkness, it was a dull and wholly unexceptional brownish color, but sunlight brought it to life. Cordelia wondered why exactly the pleasures of a sunny day were such a danger when the water was clear without a human in sight. To convey this to Nerissa, she gestured up to the unhindered waves sashaying overhead, but her younger sister did not seem to think the absence of danger was any reason to enjoy the finer pleasantries of the cove. “I don’t care if it’s empty,” Nerissa huffed, tightened her lips, and poised her hands at her sides. “You never know if some human bottom-feeder is going to show up, and what do you think they’d do if they saw you? If they saw that?” To prove her point, she aimed a clawed finger at Cordelia’s lower half.

When she looked, all Cordelia saw was the shimmering pink scales (the color was very similar, if not identical, to the soft pastel shades that adorned the insides of conch shells) layering one another down the length of her tail, only ending where the appendage fused with the brown, fleshy expanse of her stomach. On her back, a line of scales continued up her spine, accompanied by ridges that jutted like the sails of a ship in the center of her back. One appeared every few inches from the very top portion of her tail to the nape of her neck. The elegant expanse at the end of her tail where it fanned out—similar to the fins of the tropical fish swimming complacently nearby—twitched irritably as she forced herself to tolerate being scolded by a sibling who was younger than she by nearly three years.

Cordelia was careful even if she was curious, but Nerissa was either oblivious or indifferent to this. Cordelia wished she could keep herself in check, sophisticated and intelligent enough to hide herself away just in case a bad human were to be the one to witness her. But, as was typical in her life, something between her lips and lungs betrayed her, and the words would not come. She looked down in shame at the patterns her slender brown fingers had etched into the sand; they were rapidly disappearing as the tides shifted and the water swayed in obedience, following the patterns of the great orbs which chased one another across the horizon day after day, dying and disappearing as if they had never been there at all.

Cordelia’s voice was much the same. Yes, she was a siren and could even have been a respectable one, given the perfectly sharpened points of her teeth and the beauty everyone else claimed she had. But a mention of her beauty was always meant as a consolation and was never granted without the prerequisite of mentioning how she was faulty, a broken member of the siren species. Cordelia had been born mute. She had never been able to speak and was even less able to sing. She could only look on in envy as other sirens of her age—nineteen cycles of the sharks coming and going—learned to toss their hair with infamous allure and entice vulnerable sailors into the deep blue sea. She would never be capable of such a thing, and she presumed she would never understand why it had happened to her. Of all the five children her mother had borne, she was the only one to be born with no song inside of her and no means to release it if she ever gained one.

Nerissa seemed to sense the disheartenment that was churning like stormy waters inside her stomach and her stony features softened into something ever so slightly more pleasant. “I know it’s boring in the caves, but you know the rules. No one can be out here during the day. It’s too risky.” Cordelia pointed inquisitively at the younger siren and she giggled. “I’m only out here to get you, ‘Lia. Come on, please? Mom is worried sick.”

About me? Or about me exposing us to the humans? Cordelia wondered. The difference between the two was palpable, and she feared she already knew the answer—her mother’s frequent sidelong glance and tightened lips were more than enough confirmation. With a huff of resignation, she nodded and grudgingly swam in the direction of the submerged caves that burrowed cozily beneath the islands of the cove. Unable to resist the temptation of at least a little fun, she did a flip in the water on the way. What was the superiority of having a tail in favor of legs if one did not use it to one’s advantage? Even Nerissa seemed to approve and mimicked the action a few seconds later. Cordelia smiled. Being the youngest of Cordelia’s clan, Nerissa was the only one who seemed to share any of Cordelia’s inborn playfulness. After exchanging knowing smiles, the two of them ducked into the mouth of the cave wherein resided the rest of their family.

Upon entering, Whistle bounded eagerly toward Nerissa and trilled affectionately when she reached out to welcome him. Whistle was one of the two pet dolphins that resided with Cordelia’s family, a spinner dolphin who had favored Nerissa since its formative years. He had a pale, ghastly scar just behind his eye that marred his otherwise perfect blue-and-gray coloration, and no one was quite sure how it got there. The other dolphin was an old, grouchy bottlenose who did not really favor anyone but who had held a grudge against Cordelia since her birth and never missed an opportunity to nip at her. Its name was irrelevant because it never bothered to come when called.

Cordelia had tried once or twice to bring in a dolphin of her own when their migration cycles brought them within a few miles of the cove, one that would be sure to favor her, but every time, she had failed. Dolphins just did not seem to get along with her as amiably as they did with the other sirens. Perhaps she was just incapable of earning favor.

The idea was reinforced when Cordelia’s mother swished by in a whirl of faded silver scales; in the dim light of the caves, they never shimmered or glistened. Her eyes were just as dull and uninterested. “Cordelia, you need to learn that the safety of our entire world depends on not being found out by humans. They are only prey at night, Cordelia,” she warned. “During the day they are the monsters and, therefore, the ones to be feared.”

Cordelia bowed her head. In another life she might have responded in the bitter cadence of rebellion or snark, but that was not the life she had been dealt. Instead, all she could do was avoid the patronizing stare of her mother.

“Besides,” Mom tutted disapprovingly. She brushed a stray lock of white hair back into the bun sitting stiffly atop her head, “it’s not like you could be anything but a risk even at night. You will never be able to face the danger posed by those who walk on the land. You are not a true siren.”

Cordelia’s features went stone-cold as her mother’s words hit her like a slap to the face. Something deep within her, something that stretched as far down as the trenches that dipped into the earth and were so easy to get lost in, crumbled. It did not snap—if Cordelia was the sort to snap, she surely would have done so years ago. Instead, it was a part of her soul which had been subject to constant damage, the insistent wear and tear of time and discouragement and glances bristling with judgement, which at last broke through, and she found herself shattered.

Not a true siren, her thoughts repeated with an air of sadness. It was only sensible for those who could sing to view her as less than, she supposed, but it did not feel like it was fair. Cordelia was overwhelmed with the urge to yell and scream and throw things against the limestone walls of the cave that now felt more like a prison than a home. Granted, it was not as though she had been forbidden to leave—she was just immensely discouraged and scolded for doing so. Impeded from speaking her mind, she began to retreat to her room after aiming a respectful bow of her head in the direction of her mother.

“Cordelia,” Nerissa said softly, snatching Cordelia’s wrist a second time before she could part the seaweed curtain which separated her room from the rest of the cave’s interior and disappear. “It isn’t your fault you can’t sing. We know that. Nobody blames you for being like...you know.”

Her words did more harm than good. They reminded Cordelia of the feeling of saltwater saturating a fresh wound, making it sting with an odd sensation of heat and anguish scourging the afflicted flesh. The webbed tips of her ears flattened against her head. Her lips tightened and she pulled her wrist gently from the grip of her sister and disappeared behind the curtain that secluded her own little corner of the ocean from everyone else’s. She imagined her absence allowed thoughts of her to dissolve from her mother’s mind as easily as the seafoam that lapped and frothed at the edges of the shore.

Cordelia’s eyes (which were admittedly a bit sore and puffy from holding back the tears that threatened to fall whenever she was reminded of her muteness and its lingering effects on what she was—or rather, what she was supposed to be) surveyed her room with a sense of pride. One may have categorized her self-appreciation as small, perhaps even miniscule, but it was the largest she ever recalled feeling. In the center of the room, jagged black rocks encircled the softest patch of sand to be found in the room, marking the area she had designated as a sleeping area. Conch shells that glowed with their soft pink hues were scattered around the floor, some half-buried in the sand and others sitting confidently atop and not submerging themselves beneath a single grain. Against the far wall was Cordelia’s most prized possession. It sat with an aura of flirtatious vanity on a boulder serving as a tabletop. It shimmered and glittered, even more reflective than the surface of the water; this reflective quality was what kept Cordelia so enthralled with and entranced by it as the migrating sharks came and went and came again and time ticked on. Cordelia did not know the word for what it was since it had simply appeared at the edge of the cove’s drop-off one day with no explanation or instructions for itself, so she just called it magic. She could only guess that it had come from the human world, and the thought made her heart swell with a sense of adventure she could not begin to explain or quantify.

In the past, it had commanded a certain amount of trepidation from her as she approached, but those days had been abandoned rapidly as Cordelia grew older and wiser and, against the wishes and beliefs of all the other sirens, less afraid of human things. Now, though, she approached the thing with confidence. She might have even felt tittering sparks of enthusiasm, were she not so downtrodden. As she grew closer, the image before her grew more meticulous and refined. After a few moments of careful shifting in position and angle, she managed to find the perfect spot to see the entirety of her reflection swaying before her.

Her throat tightened as she surveyed her own appearance. She truly did look like a siren at the most basic levels; one could argue about her choice of hairstyle, but the fact remained that her ears morphed into fins at their shells, her neck was lined with thin, almost innocuous gills, her teeth were sharpened to fine points prepared to delve mercilessly into prey, and her webbed fingers ended in vicious claws. She also possessed the artfully pleasing looks of someone graceful, eloquent, and refined: her brown skin was supple and soft, her lips were lush, her cheekbones and jawline were edged as if they had been carved that way by a sculptor. But her eyes—they were by far the most extraordinary feature she had. They were a deep, regal shade of purple, wide and large and questioning, and they were always full of wonder, observing everything in sight and deriving endless beauty and inspiration from it all. These proper and admirable qualities should have caused her to excel, to surpass expectations with ease.

Her lips parted slightly and her forehead creased as her hands lifted and found her throat. With thoughtful strokes, her fingers caressed the area she thought voices must come from. But they don’t mean anything, she thought, and all just because I can’t speak. It was pitiful of her and cruel of the universe, she asserted, to resemble what she was meant to be so strikingly and yet never able to measure up.

Maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough. Cordelia perked up slightly and straightened to her full height and whirled around the room once, picking up as much oxygen from the water as she could. Then she faced the water and willed even the feeblest of sounds to emerge when she opened her mouth. No sound came from her no matter how hard she wished, just the same way it had failed her for years in the past. Defeated, she sank to the ground, folding her tail beneath her and her hands in front of her. Even in her earliest memories, silence had brought her immense grief that evaded any sort of quantification. She remembered her first day under the watchful eye of the instructors who taught young sirens how to survive and thrive—a sort of education system put in place by the community and enacted by several instructors, all of whom were hunters with the most impressive and extensive skillsets of all the sirens in the cove. She remembered the way several girls had attempted to introduce themselves, saying hello and waiting expectantly for her reply, then growing irritable when it never came. Cordelia’s wild gestures with her hands never seemed to get the point across. When the rumor she was mute finally did become widespread—much to the shame of her mother and three older sisters—things did not improve as she had been secretly hoping they would. Instead, annoyed glances morphed into confused looks and then into insufferable stares of pity and disproval.

The pity was what she hated the most. It was as if she were some wounded fish floundering just below the surface on the brink of death. It was her utmost wish to be a valued member of her family and, by extension, the rest of the community, perhaps even the rest of the aquatic world! But alas, she was condemned to be a parasite who fed only on what others could provide her, and she offered no contribution of her own.

It struck her all at once how exasperated she was with herself. Wallowing in self-pity was pointless and disgraceful. She knew there were better things she could be doing with her time: reading and writing, for example. She cast a listless glance in the direction of the wall littered with the scrawl used by most of the sirens within a hundred miles. She had carved the words into the wall with a sharp rock, but every cluster of them was abandoned, paragraphs left unfinished because they were all stories of heroic creatures of many sorts who basked in the spotlight of glory and were enamored with the praise of those around them. When writing them, Cordelia felt powerful and ethereal, but toward the end of any story, she found herself compelled to put down the stone and end it while she was ahead. After all, such fanciful tales were fiction anyway. What was the point of resolving them to the point of perfection? Reality was rarely so cleanly stitched together.

Even in the face of an imperfect ending, though, Cordelia found herself aching to pursue a better one than that which she seemed doomed for. Why should she allow something beyond her control to condemn her to a life of complacency she abhorred with every ounce of her existence? Why would she bow her head in respect for misery and prejudice? Why would she, Cordelia, a daughter of the sea, a strong and individual siren with all the complexity and validity as any other, allow one small detail to define her and stop her from achieving the great and the wonderful?

With her mind made up, Cordelia swam impatient circles around the room. She began to formulate a plan. Without doubt or question, she was certain that she would be as successful as any other siren—song or no song.

* * *

The silvery strands of moonlight were not nearly as appealing to Cordelia as the brash presence of sunlight. Perhaps it was a parallel brightness of character (though Cordelia doubted this; as much as she wished to be cheerful and rambunctious at a constant, more often than not the judgement pressing against her on all sides brought her to a melancholy state), or perhaps it was just that the sunlight was somewhat forbidden to her and the moonlight was not. Petty rebellion was childish, but so was Cordelia.

She bit her lip with a feverish, almost eccentric concentration as she slipped out of the caves and into the dim waters of the cove. Moonlight danced to an inaudible ballad atop the water’s surface and reflected in phantom-like patterns on the ocean floor and Cordelia’s skin. It must have been a clear night sky, Cordelia figured, without a cloud in the sky to obstruct the illumination that lit the world in a much less imposing way than the sun. Cordelia wanted to see it for herself. Though the rules of the sirens suggested against it, tugging obnoxiously at the fraying ends of her thoughts, she pushed better judgement aside and surged to the surface, pushing her head and shoulders above the water and staring straight up as residual rivulets of water slithered down her face and chin.

She could only stay like this for a few seconds, but every miniscule instant was worth catering to the fanciful whim of gazing at the sky. Even if the night was not as enticing to her as the day, she had heard in rumors and stories that stargazing was a human activity. She knew that among humans, such activities were shared among friends, but Cordelia did not have that luxury. Friends had never been, and presently continued not to be, her area of expertise. It was something she told herself often that she had come to terms with.

But when she turned to look on either side of her, in hopes that perhaps someone would be there for her to point out the beauty of the sky above, of course nobody was there. She knew nobody would be there because nobody was ever there. Thus, she settled for staring up at the sky herself and cherishing the view enough for two. Little twinkling balls of light winked down at her; they reminded her of the way light glinted off of her scales in a silvery, metallic sort of way. If she looked hard enough, Cordelia could see the variance in color: some stars were bluer than others, some contained more red, and others were the purest, brightest white one could imagine. At the center of it all was the moon, impossibly bright and enormous, the fair beauty who commanded the tides and brought light even to the darkest times. Though Cordelia’s preference remained with the sun, she could admit to a certain degree of respect for the moon and what it symbolized.

Suddenly, with unprecedented swiftness, Cordelia became painfully aware that her precious few seconds had passed, and holding her breath was proving to be incredibly uncomfortable. With the last few remaining fractions of an instant that she had before her lungs would command air and leave no time for any sort of appeal, Cordelia turned her eyes out to the horizon. She was not sure exactly what she hoped to see, but what was there appalled her: a ship.

She needed to breathe. Another second and it felt as though her chest would burst. Simply ceasing the motion of her tail allowed her to sink quickly and silently beneath the gentle, lapping waves, but the moment she had taken her fill of oxygen, she rose above the surface again and squinted in the direction of the vessel she had seen. It was still there. Cordelia found herself sighing in relief; so she had not just imagined the thing out of sheer loneliness and perhaps the slightest traces of desperation. It sat just a few hundred meters away from the mouth of the cove. Trepidation’s cautionary whispers caused her to linger in indecision for a moment, but the serenades of promise and hope quickly won out and coaxed her to approach the mouth of the cave for a closer look.

Once she arrived she could see it marginally better, especially if she squinted. It was a tiny boat, obviously designed for a crew of one. It was not often that sirens saw those sorts of ships (humans, it seemed, preferred the companionship of at least one other person when they came out at night to fish or trap or pollute), and Cordelia was no exception. Only twice in her life had she heard of such an isolated vessel so close to the cove, and she had never seen one with her own eyes until that moment.

A wicked, giddy smile crossed her face at once. She could prove with devastating finality that she was just as much a siren as any other and her prey had been foolish enough to come on its own. For once, Cordelia felt as though her luck might be turning after years of maintaining its bitter, nauseatingly unpalatable flavor. A sailor with no one watching out for him, no one to witness what was to happen, was as close to a miracle as Cordelia had seen in her nineteen cycles. The sailor would be vulnerable due to both solitude and the desire to sleep, Cordelia guessed; the darkness seemed to possess some mystical ability that rendered humans sleepy and delayed in their reactions far more than the light. Sirens had no such weakness. They slept whenever they found it necessary and were studying dolphins to learn how to go without ever completely sleeping at all. This gave her an advantage. The feeling of having such a thing swelled in her chest, and she threw all hesitation aside as she dove into the shadowy sea and swam as quickly as she could toward the vessel.

Cordelia knew a few minutes must have passed in the journey from the cove to the lonely ship, but the adrenaline pumping through her veins told her it was just a few meager seconds. After whatever span of time it happened to be, she reached the structure bobbing along with the waves and circled it curiously, running her fingers along its smooth underside. Though the dark impaired her vision slightly, she could make out the chain drifting down toward the ocean floor. This must have been connected to an anchor, which Cordelia knew served to keep the ship from drifting too far from familiar territory.

She took a deep breath and steeled herself, digging her claws as deeply as she could into her palms without drawing blood, for though she did think the sharks that would smell it were beautiful, valuable creatures, humans were terrified of them, and Cordelia did not want her prey to run off. As soon as she felt as ready as she was capable of feeling—would she ever truly be ready for this moment, the moment when she would finally prove that she was not incapable of functioning just as another siren would?—she filled her lungs to the brim with air and poked her head above the surface.

She swiped the salty water from her eyes and instantly saw him. He stood, silhouetted by the moonlight, against the railing of the boat. He appeared to be young and was not heavily built, adorned only by a cloth which curtained the space between his waist and knees. He had no bulging muscles or veins jutting from his flesh; the only part of him that did not appear perhaps a bit smaller than usual was his full head of hair. The tresses were messy and unkempt, brushing past his ears in effortless waves and scraping the nape of his neck, reaching down to just above his shoulders. His gaze was vacant and distant as he angled his face in the direction of open water, seeming to look at nothing in particular. Cordelia searched for any sort of weaponry on him, looking for a fishing pole or a net or anything else used to ensnare dwellers of the sea and take them away. No siren nor fish nor any other sea creature knew what happened to those who were taken by the humans, but it was known that they never returned. Cordelia saw nothing of this nature. Whoever this man was, it would appear he had no intention of capturing anything from the water, at least not today. He was only watching the horizon with no other visible intention whatsoever.

Cordelia’s smile grew. An unarmed human was even easier to lure than one who was out on the sea with a purpose. Those who had no personal reason to be in a certain place were especially prone to distraction. Cordelia knew this to be true from her own experience endeavoring to acquire an education; it had become painfully obvious at an early stage that she stood to gain nothing from such teachings if she was not even capable of hunting. It was a bitter perception Cordelia was sure would be rectified to something greater, something wonderful this very night. Extraordinary things were often known to happen to those who seemed to be the least likely candidates for them in the fantastical stories which were passed from one generation to the next in the community. There were tales of heroes and martyrs and warriors in chain mail armor taken from shipwrecks miles below the weaves of the sea, and most of them overcame one disadvantage or another. Cordelia’s head was filled with glittering fantasies of her own name being exchanged in the hushed, reverent voices of young sirens still looking for their place in the world. These imaginings fueled her confidence still more, and she slipped beneath the ocean’s surface to move to the bow of the ship.

A soft splashing sound was elicited as her hands parted the waters above and she rose elegantly upward until her fingertips got a firm grip on the edge of the boat. A railing served as a boundary between the boat’s deck and where it ended, most likely as a precaution for the possibility of falling out. Humans are such poor swimmers, Cordelia thought, frankly amused.

With every ounce of her strength, she hoisted herself up and managed to grasp the lowest bar of the guardrail, effectively pulling herself up. From this angle, she could see the young man’s profile outlined by silvery threads of moonlight. His features carved a perpendicular horizon into the sky, leaving a mark that was utterly temporary but would be permanently engraved into Cordelia’s mind. She vowed that the sight would be committed to memory—the way his chin rounded off like a half-moon and curved down into his throat, the way his eyes were sunken into his head and overshadowed by bushy eyebrows, the way his shoulders rose and fell and slouched in rhythm with his deep breaths and heavy sighs. She vowed that she would never forget the face of the man who would launch her into the impossible, the great and the wonderful, everything she was destined for.

Having experienced more than enough prelude to this destiny, Cordelia ceased complacent observing and decided in a heartbeat it was most certainly time to enact everything she had been planning from the moment she had sneaked from her family’s cave. She released her grip on the railing and fell back into the water, extending her tail as far as possible and ensuring she landed flat on her back to make the loudest splash possible. Even without a voice to aid her, she was sure she could capture his attention.

She bided her time for a few seconds just far enough below the surface that she was certain she would not be accidentally spotted too early. She watched the shifting patterns of the surface and squinted intently at the bow, waiting eagerly for a face to appear and gaze downward with an expression of curiosity and intrigue. Time ticked by. The face never appeared.

Confused, Cordelia surfaced once more. What she saw appalled her. The human had not even moved! It was as if he had not heard her at all, as if she had made no effort to command his interest. Annoyance pricked at Cordelia’s skin, and her lips curled into what was very nearly a snarl. Positively indignant, she shifted to float on her back and slammed her tail thrice onto the water, creating a noise she was certain could not be ignored. The cacophonous slapping sounds were thunderous enough to cause a faint ache in her own head—she was not accustomed to causing such ruckus and disarray. Surely the human would hear them and at least be the slightest bit provoked or prompted to look and see what could possibly be causing such a thing. She dove stealthily beneath the waves again and waited, enthusiasm pulsating within her even more strongly than before.

And again, no face appeared to examine what she had done.

Cordelia’s heart began to sink. Something like a rock clogged her throat while her intestines tied themselves into a knot. How large must the nerve of this creature have been, to let some unknown creature harass the waters just beyond his vessel and not cast even the most leisurely of glances in the direction of the commotion. Disappointment caused Cordelia’s expression to droop. Her smile fell and her eyes lost the sparking, shining, vivacious excitement they had held so easily and so recently.

Maybe I can’t do it, she thought sadly. Defeat pushed down on her shoulders, and the swaying motion of her tail came to a halt just so she could drift downward into the seaweed bed that flourished at the bottom of this area of the sea. The green tendrils reached out for her, and she reached out for them, hoping that perhaps they would wrap her in an embrace tight enough that she might never leave, never face the man who had paid her no mind and the community that somehow paid her less than no respect. Of course, this did not happen. The seaweed parted and shivered as soon as the disturbance she caused in the water drew near, and she slipped into the plants. When she hid herself within them and closed her eyes, focusing only on the briny scent, the feeling of long, green ropes swaying peacefully against her and the invigorating chill of the water this far below the surface was almost as though the rest of the sea, or at least the darker parts of it where pain and sorrow came from, which Cordelia mused were not so much parts as they were living creatures, did not exist. What a happy world that would be: a world without judgement or conflict, a world without duress, a world without heartache caused by those who did not care to empathize. But Cordelia knew such a carefree world would also be a world without determination or persistence, and the necessity of those things outweighed the agony caused by the cons of a world that embraced them.

All at once, her heart was overflowing with passion, burning and flickering in flame-like fashion. The tongues of white-hot confidence licked at her insides, charring her bones and causing her muscles to twitch in want of action. She obliged, surging from her position within the grove of seaweed and breeching the surface once again, this time at the stern of the vessel. The human had not moved from his position of leaning all his weight on a guard rail and staring into the empty void that constituted the sky at that hour. Cordelia wondered fleetingly what he saw or imagined he saw. Was there anything to the inaccessible abyss of the sky that she was ignorant of, some trove of answers or grandeur that escaped her in her haste to fall so irrevocably in love with the daylight?

Cordelia shook her head to dispel the thoughts. Whatever he saw did not matter. He would see no more so soon, practically nothing of him mattered aside from his obedience to her whims and wishes. She pondered for a moment whether a riskier approach than mere sound would hold enough merit to warrant its use. At first, she was convinced that abandoning caution was an exercise in self-incrimination and unnecessary danger, but when she remembered the condescending dullness in her mother’s eyes and tone, the decision was made without any further consideration. She moved silently through the water, dipping under only to breathe, and ventured out into the area where she guessed the young man’s line of sight would be.

Before he saw her, though, she got a glimpse of something she had only seen in limp, lifeless form before. She saw the man’s legs.

The odd things took her breath away. Seeing them cast over the shoulder of another siren after a hunt was nothing compared to seeing them in the flesh with her own eyes. She blinked a few times as she processed what she was seeing. Two long appendages stemmed from his waistline, the exact point where her tail began. They reminded her of her own arms, but they were stockier, capable of holding him upright and carrying him along the land. It was at this point that she noticed the other human things about him: the absence of gills on his neck, the soft curvatures of his fingers where hers morphed into tools meant for ripping and tearing, and the gentle dips and hills that made up his ears in the places hers became fins. He was so different and so foreign, an impossible creature whose lungs breathed without the luxury of water and whose form was so different to hers and yet so similar at the same time.

Cordelia only realized she was staring when the human’s eyes met her own, wide with a fearful sort of wonder. It dawned on her slowly, like sulfuric ash descending on the world after a volcanic explosion, slowly poisoning and suffocating in an innocuous and yet brutal way, that he saw her more clearly than a man had ever seen a siren before. And then the reality of what was happening hit her like a fist to the gut and left her unable to think or even breathe.

She had succeeded, but only in exposing the entire siren world to a human.


Two: He Who Lived in Silence

Cordelia’s whole world shattered when she realized she had failed. Her intent had always been to lure the human, to draw him out to sea and then pull him into the depths. Now, though, fascination and apprehension had quite clearly overridden any sort of blind curiosity. He had been allowed to examine her for just as long as she had been observing him. Shame reared up within her, baring its teeth and snapping at her heartstrings until they snapped apart and she caved in on herself with embarrassment and the endless sense of failure. The secret of the sirens was lost, and it was all because of her, the one who had been broken all along and had now fractured the entire society she had longed to be accepted wholeheartedly into.

What do I do? she thought frantically, her tail flapping frantically underwater to keep her afloat as she stared into the face of the man who had just ruined everything. No, she morosely corrected herself, I ruined everything. I never should have tried to be something I wasn’t made to be. Though the thoughts were her own, they took a different voice: that of her mother. Tears stung the backs of her eyes. Her irises glowed lavender under the pale, gloomy light cast down by the moon. She almost swam away to take shelter in the cove but abruptly realized such action would only lead the human to the rest of the sirens and endanger everyone further. Anxiously, she resigned herself to watching in horror as he gawked at her. The urge to run away persisted, but Cordelia fought against it. She drew from the depths of herself the courage to piece together the fragments of herself floating aimlessly in the ocean of her heart and face the tribulation she had wrought. If it was to be a horrendous mistake, it was to be her horrendous mistake, and no other soul would take it from her.

The young man’s mouth opened as if to speak, but he seemed to think better of it and his lips pursed shut once more. Cordelia’s lungs began to ache for breath. She receded into the water just enough that it glided against her gills, providing her with the oxygen she required. The human watched intently with a gaze that made Cordelia feel nauseous. It was as though she were some sort of exhibit, a creature trapped and forced to perform for the prying serpentine eyes that were always watching, always judging, always hungering for more. Her bones rattled within her flesh, but she rolled her shoulders back, scowled, and endeavored to produce a facade of confidence to save face. She ruled the human’s halting step backward as evidence that her attempt had worked, if only slightly.

His mouth opened again, and he took a shaking breath. Cordelia’s head tilted a few degrees to the right and her brow furrowed inquisitively. Could he be afraid of me, too?

Then the legged creature, who had uprooted the entirety of her existence with a stare lasting only a few seconds, spoke. The sounds were harsh, carried by the wind and open air, and none of the syllables made any sense to Cordelia. However, despite this, the tone was surprisingly gentle. Cordelia felt her muscles relax slightly, but her guard remained up and fully intact. His lips moved again, producing more garbled speech in a manner that sounded like a question. The cadence of humans was unintelligible and, to state it bluntly, unappealing to Cordelia. It lacked the melodious, pleasing quality the language of her people was known for. Nevertheless, she flattened her ears and shook her head in hopes of answering the question.

The human nodded thoughtfully, seeming to understand the gesture. He tentatively sank to his knees and leaned forward. Cordelia cowered slightly as he drew nearer, unsure of his intent. She was surprised at how afraid she was of him, when it was she who had the claws and teeth designating her as predator while he strolled through his life unarmed and as prey.

When Cordelia shrank back, he froze and waited. Cordelia submerged her gills for breath, her eyes never leaving the strange creature on the boat. After another few heartbeats passed, he collapsed onto his stomach and slipped under the lowest guard rail protecting him from the sea, and he offered a hand to her.

Cordelia jolted back a few paces in the water. Her eyes flicked from his hand to his face and searched for the meaning of this. An outstretched hand meant friendship and trust when exchanged between sirens and, if the innocent curiosity written all over the human’s face was any indication, it must have meant something similar in the culture of the land dwellers. Doesn’t he know I could drag him into the water? she thought, somewhat affronted by the friendly extension to her. What is he thinking? And what am I thinking? I should pull him in. That’s what I came to do.

For whatever reason, the idea was no longer appealing. Though the man should have been her prey, he was offering kindness to her, a kindness that she was undeserving of but, she realized, craved so desperately. Could it be that he was a more benevolent soul than all the sirens who had rejected her for so long? She was inclined to believe that he was. Loneliness did atrocities to a creature’s judgement, and Cordelia was no exception. Her dire need for understanding, for compassion, for acceptance betrayed her the moment he reached out for her, palm turned skyward and fingers stretching as far as they could above the serene waters.

She moved toward him as trepidation twisted in her gut. Her tail breached the surface once and she was careful to lower it into the ocean soundlessly, so as not to disturb the eerie sense of peace that had overtaken everything in sight. When he was close enough to touch, she stopped. His eyes bored into her, apparently endeavoring to predict what she might do. Perhaps he was more conscious of what Cordelia was capable of than she expected. Why, then, is he courting danger so readily? Cordelia thought quizzically.

Though the answer to that question evaded her, she felt her hand lift from the water into the cool night air and reach for his. Time slowed to a crawl as two living things, forbidden from one another, examined one another with a desire to understand instead of just observe or, in the most extreme cases, to harm and kill one another. It was a scene that had never been set before in the entirety of Earth’s history for as long as either species had records documenting their ways of life, and it was a scene neither of them would forget for as long as their hearts continued to beat and their minds continued to crave the sense of awe that only comes with finding something no one else has ever found and keeping secrets no one else has ever kept. They were everything and nothing at all to each other at once in those precious seconds. Such is the reality of strangers who were born for things great and wonderful and destined to discover such things together.

Their hands touched.

Cordelia gasped and jerked back in surprise, which appeared to startle the human considerably, as well. She had not expected him to feel so warm. His flesh was like sunlight, radiating heat and bristling with the promise of life and euphoria. In the flurry of movement, he had drawn his hand back slightly, so Cordelia had to reach out and pull it back to feel it once more. Without a second thought, she did so and skated her fingertips across the warmth of his palm. She was vaguely aware that the faintest traces of a smile were tugging at her lips. When the human pulled his hand back and she looked up at his face, she realized he was smiling too. His face illuminated like the sunrise when he did, Cordelia noted: his eyes crinkled in the corners, one corner of his mouth lifted just slightly higher than the other to reveal a tooth that was slightly crooked, and every one of his features somehow managed to capture the ethereal qualities of light itself.

The human planted his index finger in the center of his chest and repeated a word a few times. It took a moment for Cordelia to realize he was articulating his own name. “Sage. S-ay-juh, Sage.” The harshness of his voice still raked rather unpleasantly against her eardrums, but she was growing more accustomed to it, and it was much easier to understand when he spoke slowly. With crystalline clarity, she was soon repeating the sound in her head, committing it to memory as quickly as she could. After Sage was satisfied he had said his own name a satisfactory number of times, he leaned back on his haunches and looked at her expectantly. Unsure of what else to do, Cordelia simply nodded in hopes of conveying she had absorbed what he had attempted to pass along to her.

Nothing Cordelia felt made sense. She had approached the lonesome little ship with every intention of luring its captain to his demise, and now here she stayed, still as was possible in the formless and ever-changing body of water that sustained her, the desire to succumb to the expectations of her society and even herself fading rapidly until it was nothing more than the remnants of a dream, half-forgotten and phantomlike with no comparison to the vibrancy and sensations reality offered up so readily.

Putting the receding nature of her predatory instincts aside, the fear of exposing the world her ancestors had worked so diligently to form, preserve, and protect was as chilling and poisonous as ever. Her tail whirled irritably back and forth underwater as she determined how she could most effectively communicate the need for secrecy, but nothing she could do felt like enough. After half a minute more, at which point Sage was staring at her with a perplexed expression, Cordelia settled on pressing a finger vertically against her lips and plead with him as best she could with her eyes. With unprecedented quickness, Sage seemed to understand and nodded decisively. He spoke a few more phrases of gibberish, but Cordelia was too busy basking in the relief that the secret of the sirens was safe, at least for the moment, to bother reflecting on their meaning.

Cordelia tore her eyes away from Sage to gaze over at the horizon and was stunned to realize the first pastel traces of morning were bleeding into the darkness enveloping the sky. At the sight of them, she realized the sirens who were out hunting would be returning to the cove, and the sirens who had slept through the night would be awakening. In any case, Cordelia’s absence would be found out and most certainly questioned, especially considering how she had been scolded just half a day earlier for venturing beyond the caves during the day. She wasted no time in preparing to dive underwater and swim with all the speed she could muster back to her room and close herself off, most likely to reflect on her failure to accomplish what she had been so certain was all that mattered.

But before she could surge beneath the surface and scurry away, a warmth radiated from her shoulder and she turned to see Sage reaching out and placing his hand there. Cordelia flushed slightly and her ears perked up. Her mind swirled with a muddled mixture of questions, none of which were fully coherent. Sage offered a reassuring smile and explained himself by pointing at his boat and then up at the moon. His expression implied some sort of question. At once, Cordelia understood. Here, tomorrow night?

Cordelia imagined this was the sort of question which should be carefully and thoughtfully pondered, considered with utmost precision and the thorough upturning of every metaphoric stone, analyzing any possible outcome of the situation. But Cordelia was nothing if not impulsive, so her response was as immediate as the movement of a minnow when something large drew too close for comfort. With a soft smile to match Sage’s, she nodded. Then she slipped into the ocean and vanished.

* * *

Cordelia only dared emerge from her room when she heard the telltale symphony of voices and rustling movements which indicated others in the cave had awakened. When she parted her seaweed curtain and floated into the main area, she saw two of her sisters—the oldest, Indra, and Nerissa—gleefully carrying armfuls of fish. The other two, the twins, who were called Kairi and Kura, two cycles younger than Indra and a single cycle older than Cordelia, were curled up together in the corner where all the sisters save Cordelia slept.

“Good morning, Cordelia,” Indra greeted her coolly. Cordelia waved in response. As the eldest sister, Indra never failed to maintain a calm composure on the exterior. She rarely expressed more emotion than was necessary, but she was the only sister who had never patronized Cordelia. She treated Cordelia like every other sister and had never made her feel like her voice made her worth less than the others for as far back as Cordelia could remember. Because of this, Cordelia held Indra in the highest regard.

“We went out hunting, but there was only one ship last night,” Nerissa chirped brightly, “and we were pretty sure another siren was there. And it’s the unspoken rule that you never take another siren’s prey!” She giggled. Cordelia blanched, far too aware of which ship they must have been speaking. “Oh, don’t look so worried, ‘Lia! Can’t you see all the fish we’ve got? There’s plenty for everyone.” She pushed one of the scaled creatures into Cordelia’s hands and grinned at her. Cordelia made an honest effort to smile back, but she felt sick to her stomach as it dawned on her that she was nearly discovered last night.

With one great motion of her tail, Indra was beside Cordelia and felt her forehead. Her eyes were squinted with concern. “Are you feeling all right? You look like you’re not well,” she pointed out. Cordelia shrugged. “Well, eat something. It will help you feel better.”

“Maybe she just feels guilty for mooching off your hunts all the time,” Kairi sneered from the corner. “She never gets anything of her own to eat. And she’s never even gotten close to a human.” She and Kura tittered with snickers of laughter.

The words stung. Cordelia’s lip curled when they were spoken, baring several gleaming teeth, all of which were white as pearls and vicious as a shark’s. She cast an icy glance in the direction of the twins, but her annoyance only seemed to add to their amusement.

“And she’s just as useless as a human,” Kura put in, circling Cordelia like a gull in the sky painting circles on the horizon with its wings around the scent of a dead or dying meal-to-be. “Just as vulnerable.”

The ridges of Cordelia’s spine stood on end and her ears flattened against the sides of her skull. Kura and Kairi, being the middle children, had always felt the need to grasp every thread of attention possible. They had discovered soon after Cordelia’s muteness was declared permanent that cruelty toward her was a speedy way to acquire the spotlight they craved, even if it did sometimes come in the form of scolding behind closed doors.

“That’s enough,” Indra warned. Stifling the last of their giggles, Kura and Kaira glided lazily past and grabbed more fish than it appeared they would be able to stomach. With a huff of indignation, Cordelia took a bite of her own breakfast and glowered at the floor. It was probably best for the moment that she was unable to speak. If she could, she was certain she would rant and rave of how she had gotten closer to a human than any of them ever had and ever would, so close that she had seen the angles and planes that formed his face, so close that she had felt him and all the warmth burning inside of him. Such brashness would only result in being found out, which would undoubtedly result in consequences of unprecedented severity.

It’s just so hard to keep quiet when all they’ve ever done is humiliate me, Cordelia thought bitterly. One of these days, I’ll show them.

She was not entirely sure how she could accomplish that goal at present. After all, she had now agreed to meet Sage in secret, and ulterior motives were not in place, at least, not on her end of the arrangement. As unfortunate as it was, she possessed a genuine desire to see him, the odd creature who was full of sunlight and who had been the first to show Cordelia undeniable, unquestionable kindness. She was drawn to him much in the way one is drawn to the ancient, forgotten crevices of the earth, enticed by the sense of mystery and adventure and the allure of doing something which had never been done in quite the same way before.

But the only way to impress Kura and Kairi, or almost any other siren, for that matter, was to hunt and kill. The only path to good fortune among the species was to bring another creature to its demise, and now Cordelia could not avoid the realization that every man brought down by a siren had most likely been as thoughtful and unique as Sage was. The thought made her stomach turn in a way she was not accustomed to.

“Cordelia?” Nerissa’s voice was gentle and her touch was soft as she pulled Cordelia to the side of the cave and away from the other sisters, all of whom were now engaged in an extremely enthusiastic chatting session about something or another. “Like I told you, nobody blames you for being like this,” Nerissa continued softly. “I know I was harsh when Mom sent me out to get you yesterday, but I can’t blame you for wanting to get out for a while. And I know you’re careful…” Her lips twisted with indecision. She cast a glance at the other three sisters, all still cheerfully bantering away about things of questionable importance. Cordelia realized Nerissa was pitying her, the runt of their litter, the one unable to engage in such conversations and as such did not understand their merit whatsoever.

The silence grew too long for Cordelia’s liking. She touched Nerissa’s shoulder with pressing urgency, prompting her to finish whatever it was she had set out to say.


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