Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




No Lonely Seafarer

On the nights Mrs. Wainwright let me work in the barn instead of the tavern, I used to sing to the horses. They would greet me with their own murmurs, and swivel their ears to follow my voice as I readied their suppers. That was where Captain Smythe found me: in the barn, singing a song of my own making. I shut up as soon as I heard the door squeal on its hinges.

“You’re Freddy Turlington’s boy, aren’t you?” His voice was rummy but not drunk. There were men around I felt the need to hide from, but he didn’t seem like one of them.

“Turlington was my father.”

I watched him from one of the stalls. He sat down heavily on a bale of bedding straw, grunting as if the effort pressed all the air from his lungs. He wore a well-fitted blue coat and his boots still shone with care, which set him apart from most of our patrons these days.

“You must be, what, ten now?”

I didn’t answer, but resumed my feeding rounds. Thirteen. Close enough. The horses rumbled their “pleases” and “thank yous.”

“What’s your name, child?”

“Alex,” I answered.

“Alex, do you know who I am?”

“Captain Smythe. My father sailed with you.”

“Freddy was a good sailor and a good cook. I was sorry he got himself killed.”

That one didn’t really have an answer, so I left it. I climbed up into the loft, dangling my legs over. He looked up at me. His face was red, but less from drink than from exposure, as far as I could tell from the uniformity of the color. His skin had the look of leather left out in the sun.

“Can you sail, child?”

“Yes, sir.”

I wished he would get to his point, whatever it was, but he was in no hurry. He closed his eyes. I thought for a moment he had fallen asleep, but then he addressed me again.

“I’d like you to sail out with me next week.”

I assessed him again. I hadn’t thought him drunk, but he had to know we couldn’t sail anywhere. I chose to take the practical tack first. “I can’t. My father bonded me to Mrs. Wainwright when he left me here.”

“I spoke with Mrs. Wainwright about buying your bond. Or leasing it, I should say. I’ll only have need of you for a short trip. I need somebody your age on board. Do you know why?”

I considered for a moment. “You think I can get you past the sirens?”

He smiled. “Well done. Yes. We must get past the sirens, and beeswax doesn’t bloody well do it, contrary to anything Homer said. Bright child.”

It didn’t take intelligence. There wasn’t a person in Dog’s Bay who hadn’t heard about the sirens now nesting on the headland, singing at anyone who tried to pass, keeping ships from getting in or out. The streets and the taverns and the boardinghouses were all clogged with sailors, who were in turn clogged with their desire to be back on the sea. It was part of why I felt so much safer in the barn. The Salt Dog tavern became rowdier with each passing night. Fights and fires would come next, according to Mrs. Wainwright. She said she was old enough to have seen it all before.

“What about sirens?” I had asked her.

She shook her head. “Not personally, but search the sea long enough and you’ll see most stories have some truth to them.”

Everyone in port had an opinion on how to get past the sirens. In recent evenings past, clearing tables, I had heard debate after debate on the matter. Lucius Nickleby had been the first to try to leave. He and his men had stuffed their ears with beeswax, the way the Greeks had done. John Harrow watched through his spyglass on shore as they threw themselves from the deck. Ahmed Fairouz, with his fluyt Mahalia, had attempted to outrun the bewitching songs. The Mahalia was dashed to splinters on the rocks below the promontory. A month later, pieces were still washing to shore with each tide.

“You understand what I’m proposing, boy?” Smythe asked.

“You’re hoping that their voices don’t work on a child.”

“I’m betting my life on it.”

I dropped down from the loft and walked over to where he was sitting. He was not a large man, though I was much smaller. Up close, his blue coat was stained and split-seamed. It made me bolder than I might have been otherwise. “You’re betting my life on it as well. Do you expect to rouse an entire crew of children, then? Or am I to tie all your men to the masts until we pass?”

He was silent as he appraised me afresh. Maybe my voice was older than he expected, or maybe he caught a glimmer of what Mrs. Wainwright called “the off thing” about me. When he spoke again, the false cheer was gone from his voice. “I’m thinking it would be the two of us, in a small fishing boat I purchased for the purpose. And yes, I would have you tie me up, but no use risking my men or my ship if I’m wrong. If I’m right, we can pass unharmed, then return to port. If I’m mistaken, well, at least I die at sea, as I was meant to do.”

“As you were meant to do,” I echoed, emphasizing the “you.” His chosen destiny, not mine. Not that I had any reason to expect a choice. If Mrs. Wainwright wanted to sell or rent my bond, she had every right. Then again, I liked that Smythe had come to me as if it were a question. I liked the idea of seeing something beyond Dog’s Bay, even if only briefly. I had never considered myself an heir to my father’s wanderlust, but maybe some small sliver of it in me begged to be entertained. I wanted to see how the ocean differed from the cove, and why it called to all of the men of our town as persuasively as any siren.

“If you’ve already spoken with Mrs. Wainwright and she’s said I’m to go, I’ve no business saying otherwise.” His rough hand dwarfed mine when we shook on it.

• • • •

I waited until the next day to seek out Mrs. Wainwright. I found her overseeing the morning meal, making sure the twins ladled each customer exactly the right amount of porridge. She rarely cheated a patron, just made sure they got what they had paid for and nothing more. It had taken a long time to get the twins to understand that nuance; now, at seven, they needed only minimal supervision.

I waved a greeting. Eliza waved back, but Simon was clearly using all his attention to make sure the spoon got to the bowl and back without making a mess.

I came around the bar and Mrs. Wainwright swatted me with a towel. The gesture was friendly, her tone only mock stern. “Don’t be distracting them now. I might allow them to serve stew if this comes off right. Are the horses fed and watered?”

“Yes, ma’am. That little chestnut that came in with the knife salesman is still not drinking, though.”

“Hopefully he’ll leave again before he notices. Bit of a fool in any case. Try giving it some beer in its water when you go out next. Maybe the water here tastes different from the other side of the island. I’ll tell you, I’ll be happy when all of these opportunists hitch up and drive away and things get back to normal.”

She squinted at me, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Something bothering you, Alex?”

“That captain you sent out to the barn last night?”

She nodded. “Smythe. Good man. Used to come around a fair bit back in the day. Bad luck for him that the first time he swings out our way in a dog’s year is when those screechy biddies settle down to roost. Here, make yourself useful.”

I took the rag she held out, and began to wipe the closest unoccupied table. A couple of groggy sailors sat on the fringes of the room and one at the far end of the bar. I lowered my voice so the discussion could continue without them or the twins overhearing. “But—why’d you send him to me?”

“His idea is better than anything the rest of these fools came up with. Silas Hill—that fellow in the far corner—he’s trying to work up the dash-fire to make himself deaf, if he can figure out how. Only he’ll have to deafen his whole crew as well, won’t he?” She made sure Silas Hill heard her. He stared into his ale.

“But Smythe’s idea is to have a young boy take him, and you know I’m not as young as that, and,” I walked to her side to whisper, “you know I’m not exactly the boy we say I am.”

“All the better for it,” she whispered back. “I think you have more chance than anyone, and this has to happen soon, before things get out of control.”

“Why not one of those lady captains that come in here sometimes?”

She shook her head. “One of them tried as well, not two days ago. That’s her mast sticking out of the rocks like a flagpole. But you’re no lady captain.”

“So you’re trying to kill me. You want me out of here. Sold to the highest bidder.” I swiped at a sticky spot on the bar with my rag until she stopped my hand.

“I have a right to do that if I want, but you’ve always worked hard, and I’m not of a mind to lose your help. I think you’ll survive because you’re not like any of the others who have tried.”

“I see,” I said in mock comprehension, not bothering to hide my anger. “Then it’s because I’m neither-nor?”

She took the rag from my hand. “No. Because you know what you are, in a way that most people don’t ever have to think about. Now take those fool children and clean them off before I’m tempted to beat them.”

I looked over to see that the twins had managed to knock over the vat of porridge in their own direction. They were working together to right the pot, but wearing most of the dregs.

I wasn’t going to win any argument here. “Come on, you two. Looks like you’re getting a scrubbing, but it’s better than a beating.”

They followed me outside. Simon’s left foot squished as he walked. Step, squish. Step, squish. Even in my dark mood, I found it hard not to laugh.

“Fetch two buckets each,” I said, sliding the barn door open wide enough for them to wriggle through. They returned a moment later, and we went to the pump. I took pity on them and carried two back myself, leaving each of them with one full bucket. Sometimes two is better than one, though. Balance. Eliza lost half of hers on the walk back, most onto her own shoes and trousers. Simon trailed us, careful not to spill a drop.

The day was mild enough, so I poured the four buckets into the barnyard trough.

“Empty your shoe into one of those buckets,” I told Simon. “And both of you, any porridge you can scrape off yourselves.”

They did as they were told.

“Now into the trough with you ducklings.” They both hesitated, then Simon shrugged and climbed over the edge, and his sister followed with a whimper. I slipped into the barn to give the shoe-porridge to the little chestnut mare that wouldn’t drink.

When I returned to the barnyard, I heard the twins bickering. Eliza sounded more put upon, so I suspected the accident had been her fault. They were both still in their clothing, but I figured that needed washing, too.

I had been in charge of their baths and their nappies from the time they had arrived, when I was seven. The smooth cleft between Eliza’s legs and the nub between Simon’s taught me everything that I was supposed to be and wasn’t. I suspected later that was part of the reason Mrs. Wainwright had put me to the task.

“Why?” I asked the first time she showed me how to clean each of them properly.

“Why are they different from each other, or why are you different from both of them?”

I considered. “Yes.”

“Most everyone is born into this world a boy, like Simon, or a girl, like Eliza. I guess there are some people in the world born like you, with boy parts and girl parts that don’t really add up to either. That isn’t really a why, but I’m not sure there is one. You’ve seen that tabby cat running around with the extra toes? That doesn’t bother her none, so I guess you have to make up your mind that this won’t bother you neither.”

The cat in question unlatched box stalls and unscrewed jars. She did pretty well for herself.

“It won’t bother me neither,” I echoed.

“Do you feel more like one than the other?”

I looked at the two babies. Up until that point I hadn’t really thought about it either way. It didn’t seem to make much difference.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

“It’ll be safer for you to live as a boy. You can piss standing up, and you won’t get pawed by as many of the drunks so long as your chest stays flat, and they won’t get any surprise sticking a hand down your skirt someday. Though that would serve them right. I wouldn’t mind teaching that lesson myself.”

“I can be a boy.” More than anything, I wanted to please her. I was rewarded with a smile.

“You’re a good child, Alex. Whatever else you are doesn’t matter to me.”

I had one more question. “Is that why my father left me here?”

She gave Simon a final powdering of wood dust and put him into my arms. “Yes and no. Your father left you because a seafaring man can’t be expected to care for a baby, and he knew I’d raise you and give you work. How he wound up with you? I would guess that the woman that bore you, whoever she was, got a little put out by that collection of parts you’re carrying and decided to wash her hands of you. No matter, though. It’s just an odd thing, and one better not to discuss with anyone else. You understand?”

I nodded, bouncing Simon on my knee. He giggled. I made a face, and he copied it. That would be how I would learn, too.

• • • •

I draped the wet clothing over a rail to dry, and bade the two naked children to sit on an old blanket while I cleaned stalls.

“Why do you sing to the horses?” Eliza asked, tucking in her toes to stay clear of my wheelbarrow.

“To let them know where I am, and to keep them calm while I work around them. And because I like it. There, that’s three reasons.”

“Are we allowed to sing?”

“Always, little duck. Pick a song.”

I dumped the barrow outside, then joined my voice with theirs as I hoisted my pitchfork again.

By the time I finished all fourteen occupied straight stalls and the two boxes, the sun was well past noon. I much preferred the horse waste to human waste, but most of the guests would be out by now, and chamber pots needed emptying. The twins levered themselves into clothes half-dry and stiffened in the sunlight.

My intention was to head straight back, but a commotion in the square distracted me. “Run home and start on the chamber pots,” I told Eliza and Simon. “Take care not to mess.”

I crept closer to the source of the sounds, staying up against the buildings in case it was a fight. Silas Hill, who looked to be even more in his cups than he had that morning, stood on the edge of the old well.

“How much longer are we going to stare at our ships as they rot in this bay? How much longer will we spend away from our homes?”

Hill swayed as he talked; he was probably lucky the well had been bricked over when the pumps were installed. The crowd murmured and swayed with him. They sounded like they agreed on the sentiment, even if they couldn’t put an actual number on it.

I noticed my friend Ginny, the baker’s daughter, and went to stand by her. “What’s he on about?”

She flashed me a smile. “Alex! He’s trying to get a party together—a troop, I think he said—to sneak up on the sirens over land.”

“Can he do that? The sneaking up part, not the over land part.”

She blushed, and I looked down. We both knew it was possible to climb up to the headland, and to sit in the rocky meadow and watch the ships come and go, and to share a single kiss before scrambling back down with our hearts hammering out of our chests. We hadn’t spoken of it since.

“He thinks he can. The question is how many he’ll rally, I suppose. And what weapons they’ll bring.”


“That’s why they’re sneaking up. To shoot the sirens before they can sing.”

The idea of killing them wasn’t one I had heard before. I knew the seamen needed to get back out to sea and that we needed supplies to come in. Still, I had figured the sirens would find some other place to nest at some point, and leave us alone. Or Captain Smythe’s idea would work, and ships could get by again. I wasn’t sure it was fair that they should have to die for doing what was their nature.

Ginny and I watched as Hill rounded up eleven men, all as drunk or drunker than he was. “Cowards!” he shouted at the rest. None of them seemed to mind. Somebody put a rifle in his hand and he swung it like a sword. Another man raised a bow and a handful of arrows. The group stumbled down the cobblestones in the right general direction. A couple of snickers came from the larger crowd.

“Bunch of suicides,” said a woman standing at the back.

“If you’re going to get yourself killed by sirens, it’s only proper to go by ship,” agreed a man standing next to her. “I’m working up to it myself.”

I saw Captain Smythe at that moment, facing me from the other side of the well. He had heard the other man too, but he caught my eye and shook his head. He believed in his solution. The others had too, of course.

“Hey! Boy!” A hand clamped down on my shoulder, though the derision in the voice had already rooted me to the spot. Ginny’s mother, Mrs. Arietti. “Aren’t you supposed to be working? You aren’t needed here.”

I threw an apologetic glance at Ginny as her mother marched me away. Had she noticed the way her mother said “boy”? My cheeks burned.

“What have I said about speaking to my daughter?” she whispered when we were out of Ginny’s earshot.

“D-don’t do it.”

“So what makes you think I didn’t mean it?” Each of her fingers was like a separate nail biting into my collarbone. “You’re not the type I want sweet on my daughter.”

I wondered what the type was. In this town, her choice was pretty much one of the seafaring men or me, or one of the island’s few inland farmers. Maybe she was waiting for some rich merchant to roll in and whisk Ginny away to a better life. It wouldn’t happen so long as the sirens had us locked in and the world locked out.

She rounded on me one last time outside the tavern. She crooked a finger at my face, the knuckles swollen from kneading dough. “If you so much as walk on the same side of the street as Ginny, I’ll make sure you regret it.”

Somebody stumbled out of the Salt Dog at that moment, and I took the opportunity to squirm from Mrs. Arietti’s grasp and duck inside. For the next minute my breath came in gasps as I waited for her to follow.

• • • •

The tavern was full that night and the next, and for once I was grateful to have no time to think about anything but chores. Even the twins were called to duty. They kept busy fetching empties and unwatched half-empties, and giving us a running tally of what was going on in the corners we couldn’t see.

The patrons fell into two categories, surly and morose. Nobody sang, nobody played card games. I broke up one fight, earning myself a black eye in the process, and Mrs. Wainwright broke up two more. She sent Simon and Eliza back to her rooms upstairs.

Not long after, a sober and ragged-looking man slunk through the door. I recognized him as the one who had brandished the bow and arrows the day before. Someone at the closest table stood up to let him have a chair, and someone else handed him a mug of ale, which he drained in one draught.

“What happened?”

“Are the sirens dead?”

“Quiet, all of you,” said Mrs. Wainwright, banging on the bar. “Let him have another drink. Can’t you see his tail’s down? Give him a moment and he’ll speak when he’s ready.”

They grew silent. Another mug appeared in front of the man. He drank that one slowly, sighing when he reached the bottom. I expected a long story, but he didn’t have much to say.

“They’re all dead, the men I left with. We went to sneak up only they must have heard us coming, ’cause they started singing. We heard ’em, the sirens, like, and every man among us dropped his weapons and started running toward ’em.”

“How did you get away?” asked the sailor who had hit me a few minutes before.

“I tripped and hit me head on a rock.” The man tipped his cap to show a gash and bruise on his temple. “Knocked meself out cold.”

A laugh went round the room. “That sounds about right for old Charley,” someone shouted.

“What did you do when you woke up?”

“I left, of course, before those bitches got to thinking I was trying to pass them and started singing at me. Only I was a little confused, see, and when I got to the bottom I got turned around and went the wrong way. Took me half a day to realize I was walking away from the port.”

Almost everyone laughed.

“What did they sing?” Smythe asked, his voice cutting through the chuckles. I hadn’t even realized he was in the room.

Old Charley looked confused.

Smythe repeated himself, then rephrased the question. “The sirens. What did they sound like? You’re the first person we know who has heard them and lived. I’ve heard different stories, but most of them say if anyone hears their song and resists the temptation, the sirens fall away or die.”

Charley touched a hand to his bruise. “I’m sorry. I didn’t resist. And I don’t have much of a head for a tune on the best of days.”

“That’s no lie,” someone shouted from the back of the room. More laughter.

“Not the tune, then. The words? Anything?” Smythe’s voice held no humor.

“It was about singing, I think.” Charley frowned. “They were singing about singing. I remember that much. Not too many songs are about singing. Most of them are about women or ships.”

Someone launched into “Married to a Mermaid,” and for the first time all night the customers sang. Mrs. Wainwright joined in, and I would have liked to, but I made sure not to sing where strangers might hear. I noticed Captain Smythe wasn’t singing either. He pushed his way through the crowd to talk to me.

“I’ve had enough of this, Alex. We’ll go tomorrow morning. Out and back, to show it can be done.”

“Yes, sir.”

The mood in the tavern brightened. Mugs were raised to Old Charley and to Silas Hill and the other dead men.

“We’re leaving in the morning,” I told Mrs. Wainwright.

“Feed the horses before you go, then, and you’ll be back to feed them again come evening.” She turned away from me quickly, but not before I noticed tears in her eyes.

I slipped upstairs to her rooms, where Simon and Eliza were playing jacks on the floor. I sat down beside them.

“I have to go away tomorrow.”

Eliza cocked her head at me. “Go away?”

“With one of the captains.”

“But I thought nobody could leave. Not by ship.”

“We’re going to show there’s a way to leave by ship and come back.”

Simon’s hug surprised me, coming out of nowhere. “I hope you come back.”

I hugged him. “I hope so too.”

“Do we have to do your chores if you don’t?” Eliza asked.

“I imagine you do. But I’ll be back.” I tried to keep my tone light.

I spent the night in their bed with them, and extricated myself from their little bodies at the first light of dawn, having not slept a minute myself. I went through my rounds in the barn, feeding and watering the horses, singing them “Married to a Mermaid,” and giving each an extra pat and scratch behind the ears. The chestnut mare had finally drunk. If we reopened the port, the knife salesman would be on his way, and she could go home to where she liked the water better. If we reopened the port, I’d be back here to see her off. I tried not to think about the other option.

Captain Smythe met me at the docks. I had expected a crowd, but I was happy to see only his own men had gathered to see him off. I wasn’t much for attention. I only wished Mrs. Wainwright had come. Maybe the previous night was as much goodbye as she could stand to say. I knew she cared about me, even if she didn’t say it outright.

Smythe’s rented fishing boat was as small as he had said, though it had a small cabin and sails. He was chatting with his men, so I jumped on board and began looking over the rigging, to show him I knew a little bit. Not that I knew much. I had only sailed around the bay now and again with some friend or another of Mrs. Wainwright. One had actually taken the time to teach me. “It’s not right to live in a port town and not know how to sail,” she said. So I checked the lines and the cleats, and felt pleased with myself.

Smythe joined me a few minutes later, with one last wave to his men. I imagined he had charged them to watch and report back if we didn’t return, or to serve as our witnesses if we made it back and nobody believed us.

He cast off with practiced hands. I left him alone while he worked. When he finally addressed me, he did so without looking in my direction, pointing to a heavy iron lock on the outside of the cabin and a key on a hook beside it.

“I’m going to go below as soon as I can, and you’re to lock me in. No sense in risking getting any closer when we don’t know how far their voices carry.”

I nodded.

“You’re not to let me out, no matter how much I beg. Not until we’re out of the bay.” I nodded again, and watched as he lashed the tiller to hold direction. He didn’t say another word, but gave an ambiguous gesture in my direction as he went below. Goodbye, perhaps, or good luck, or don’t wreck us, or just get on with it. I closed the lock and hung the key back on the peg.

I had never been alone on the deck of a boat before. It felt strange to sit at the tiller as if I were a captain. Powerful. How much more so would it feel to succeed in our task? Maybe if I returned a hero, Ginny’s mother would let us speak again.

A mast stuck out between the rocks. Here and there, pieces of other ships that had preceded us. Ahead lay the mouth of the bay, wide and glittering gold-blue where the morning sun hit the water. The two rocky promontories that sheltered us loomed taller than I had ever seen them before.

The one to the starboard side was the one I watched now. I didn’t know what to expect. Would the sirens appear? Would they sing first? What did it feel like to be lured by a song, lulled by a song? What went through the heads of the captains as they dashed their own ships on the rocks? I wanted to know. I didn’t want to know.

There was a decent breeze by the shore, but it lessened as we sailed toward the open sea. I hummed to myself to pass the time. The air now hung like a woolen blanket on a washline. I took my hand off the tiller; I was only pretending to be a captain. Really, I had no clue what to do if we were becalmed.

“Let me out!”

I spoke to the locked door. “Captain, I’m not supposed to let you out. But do you hear them? I don’t.”

He moaned in response. I scanned the rocks for any sign of the sirens.

And then I heard them.

Their voices were hideously beautiful. I made out some of the words. As Old Charley had said, it was a song about the song itself, daring the listener to listen, as if anyone had a choice. The words drifted in the air.

“Listen to our two voices,” they said, and I did.

“Sweet coupled airs we sing,” and something about a green mirror, and the whole time they were singing, I kept expecting some key to turn in my own lock, something to make my hand move on the tiller. And the whole time they were singing, I kept thinking: I know this song. I knew it in my bones, knew it though I had never heard it. Not the words, but the challenge behind them.

The sail moved of its own accord, fighting any direction. A new wind swirled, pushed about by the force of enormous wings. Wings that blocked the sun and sent the boat rocking. The sirens landed on the deck, feather-light, and I saw them for the first time.

They were like me. Or I thought they were, for a moment of wishful thinking. They weren’t, but I found it hard to look at them straight on. They were naked, and they had wings, or they didn’t, and they threw their shoulders back and their chests forward like strutting birds. I understood the two voices, understood the mirror, understood.

Smythe still moaned in the cabin, but with luck the tide would bring the boat safely to shore even if I didn’t return. His men could pry the door.

I took off my shirt and unwrapped the binding round my small breasts. I removed one boot, then the other, then my trousers. I dared them to look at me, and they did it as if it wasn’t a dare at all. Like nothing I had ever wanted in my life, I suddenly knew I wanted to grow wings and scales. I wanted to roost with them on rocks in their green meadow.

No. What about Mrs. Wainwright and Captain Smythe? Roost with the sirens in some other green meadow, overlooking some other sea. Teach them new songs that didn’t sing sailors to their graves.

“Draw near, bring your ship to rest,” they sang. They never stopped singing. “No man passes without hearing the sweet sound from our lips.”

I am not a man, some small part of me said. I am but I am not. But the female captain had run aground as well, and I knew I wasn’t exactly a woman either. While I puzzled, each of them took one of my arms. They lifted me into the sky. I squeezed my eyes shut.

It took me a moment to work up the nerve to look. Everything appeared much smaller viewed from above. I saw the shape of the whole island, the rocky cliffs that made any other landing impossible. The bay really was shaped like a dog’s head, pinched by the collar of the two headlands. Our town, the dog’s snout. I saw the town square, and the tavern, and the barn, where I had sung only to horses. I pictured Mrs. Wainwright starting the porridge, and the twins stirring in their bed, and Ginny’s lips on mine, and I missed them all as if I was already gone.

“Wait,” I said. What belonging could the sirens offer me? I wasn’t one of them. Whatever they were offering wasn’t love, or furtive kisses, or even the satisfaction of a job done well. If I went with them, what would Mrs. Wainwright think of me? The choice overwhelmed me. I wasn’t sure if it even was a choice. Maybe I was already another sailor lost to the sirens.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I sang. The sirens closed their mouths and listened as I sang their own song back at them, and then shifted the tune to one of my own, keeping some of their words. Their two voices? I lived that story every day. They sang that no life could be hid from their dreaming, so I offered mine as proof. I thought maybe they had never heard a creature such as I was: alone in my knowing, alone of my kind. I sang another song, turning their mirror back on them.

“But we can tell you everything that will ever happen in the world. All the secrets.” Their voices had lost some luster.

“I already know what happens. Everybody lives until they die, and most have hard lives, and some have easy ones, and some give up their children and some take them in, and some get a home even with an odd thing about them.”

“Come with us. No lonely seafarer rows past our green mirror.”

“I’m not lonely. They’re the lonely ones, all these sailors that long for the sea when they’re home and their homes when they’re at sea. They’re stuck in between. I’m in between, but I’m not stuck. I just am.”

Their wings beat slower now, and we descended a bit. The hesitation gave me confidence. “I think I won. I heard your song, but mine was better. I’m not going with you. I’m staying here, and you’re leaving, because I won.”

The sirens dropped me over open water. I might have taken that for a kindness, but it didn’t feel intentional. By the time I hauled myself onto the boat, they were specks on the horizon. Someone else’s problem. I lay naked for a moment on the deck, basking in the bright sunlight. Then I clothed myself and unlocked the cabin. The horses would be waiting for me, swiveling their ears to catch my song over top of the breeze that would bring our small boat back to shore.

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Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker photo by Bill Hughes

Sarah Pinsker is the author of the novelette In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind, winner of the 2014 Sturgeon Award and 2013 Nebula Award finalist, and 2014 Nebula finalist, A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Lightspeed, and in anthologies including Long HiddenFierce Family, and The Future Embodied. She is also a singer/songwriter and has toured nationally behind three albums; a fourth is forthcoming. In the best of all timelines, she lives with her wife and dog in Baltimore, Maryland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @sarahpinsker.