When the Tides Bring You Back
by Hayley Stone
If I knew their names, I would sing to them of my little island home in the sea. I would sing until the inside of my throat began to peel like the skin of a grapefruit, until my words became one long screech, the kind that wakes you from a terrible dream. When their thoughts finally began to circle on themselves, telling them to come, come closer, come now, HURRY, and they finally obeyed, even then I would cover the sound of their screams with my voice.
But I did not know their names.
I did not know the names of the men who stole my sister from me, capturing her in the middle of the night while the rest of the nest slept. She was never the strongest among us, too impulsive, easily distracted. Yes, she was curious about the human world, and yes, I admit I may have caught her on several occasions whispering to her food, asking questions, especially of the female sailors who sometimes fell into our lyrical snares, but still I did not believe she went willingly to her doom. We are twins, and for sirens that means we each share half of the same soul. I would have known if she was unhappy enough to dare leaving.
I would have known it.
There are many stories about my kind. Most are complete fabrications, but this one at least is true: had I known the names of the men, I could have entered their dreams.
I cannot speak for other nests, but mine has an agreement with the Muses: they let us send our spirits to dreamers in exchange for telling them tales to share with their patrons. When my sister first went missing, after I had flown as far as I might on my own wings, I tried asking one of the Muses to help me in my search, to name the men who had swept her away and show me their faces. She declined. It made a better story, she said, if my sister did not come back.
The other sirens understood why I wept and tore at my feathers, but they quickly got over the loss. Within a month, their sympathy turned to annoyance. It was hard enough luring sailors to our shores now that most of them worked below deck in their giant steel ships, plugging their ears with music. I was ruining the ensemble, my voice too full of tears.
And a siren who cannot sing does not eat.
“She’s not worth starving over,” a friend told me, but she had never liked my sister. Something about the way my sister looked at her. I had not known what she meant. “You’ve mourned her. That’s all you can do.”
But was it? I wondered.
Perhaps there was yet another way to send a message.
I perform my mission in secret, rescuing one man, then another, bringing each of them to the same secluded cove my sister had when she wanted privacy.
I tell them about my sister, order them to locate and rescue her—if indeed she needs rescuing. After finding her secret collection of mortal odds and ends, the kinds of bits and bobs that wash up after a wreck, including several soggy magazines stashed away under a heavy rock, I am no longer sure that is the case. Regardless, I threaten the men, warning that I will reach into their dreams and sing them to drowning if they fail to do as I bid. It is all I feel I can do.
The Muse from before watches these conversations from the cliffs, her expression as remote as a passing cloud.
After releasing the last of the men, I fly up to join her, one final idea in mind.
“Send my sister a daydream of spring,” I plead, describing how the grass leaned in our wake as we raced the wind, and the way I used to help my sister rid her old feathers, smiling as she shed the dead structures, freeing the downy shine beneath. “Keep me in her memory,” I whisper, “so she knows she still has a home here.”
“What if she returns and is not as you remember?” the Muse asks me.
“Then I will change, too,” I answer, surprising myself with how much I mean it.
The Muse falls silent for what feels like millennia, until at last she nods.
No men ever come willingly to the island, but finally, after many years, my sister does.
She returns featherless, but with a smile on her lips, bringing along a woman with skin the color of sand when the tide rolls in, and dark hair that forks over each shoulder in neat braids tipped with bright pink. I hunt behind them for the bodies of the men my sister must have slain to escape, but there is only a small boat floating patiently off the coast.
“Sister,” says my sister, “I want you to meet someone. This is my wife, Anouk.”
I have questions, of course. When did they first meet? And where? Was it here on the island? Had she rescued Anouk from the rest of the nest—from me?
More importantly, why had my sister not told me what she was planning?
“You would have stopped me,” my sister says, and she is probably right. We are family, but I have never been able to see her clearly, too lost inside my own bloody surf.
Part of me wants to hold onto the anger surrounding her disappearance, but in discussing her reasons for staying away, I quickly come to understand. It was never about me. My sister was not taken. I did not lose her. She has finally found what she was searching for in all those hushed conversations on the beach. Standing beside her wife, she looks happy, happier than I have ever seen her. That matters. Perhaps, in the end, it is all the matters.
Anouk releases my sister’s arm and approaches me with a warm, inviting smile. “It’s good to finally meet you. Your sister tells me you are a wonderful singer.”
She holds out her soft human hand, and being mindful of my claws, I take it.
“Anouk,” I say, testing her name like the opening note of an aria. I imagine all the harmonies she and my sister have discovered while they were away. All the beautiful duets they will sing together in the future. Maybe they can even teach me a new song. Maybe I am finally ready to learn.