There’s a storm out west that stretches too wide to go around and too deep to see the end. We knew it was coming before we could see it, but still there was nothing we could do. We bark commands and tie our knots and prepare for a rough night. We hunker down in hammocks and pray it’s not as bad as it looks, or we sprawl out in captain’s quarters and curse nature for the setback. We are three days with a strong wind away from another little x on another map and have not seen another vessel for ages. We ran out of fresh food and water the day before last and can only hope the rain catchers on deck are stable enough to weather the storm, though we doubt any caught will be sufficiently clean. The waves toss us about and we clutch to anything stable as the ship is inundated with frigid, briny water, lifting anything not secured with an ease only the ocean could manage. This ship takes a whole crew to steer, but a mere flick of a wave could ruin everything.
There’s a crash above the deck that sounds more like a million breaking plates than a wave and some of us lose our grip and slide around, struggling for purchase on the wet floorboards. Something cracks and we rush to find out what. Unsecured ropes whip through the air, deadly to anyone above. There is no telling how long this storm will last, though indicators show it won’t be ending any time soon. It feels like it has lasted hours already.
A midst the waves, a sound arises like it is floating on the water, bobbing up and down and not broken by the crashing swell. It sounds a bit like tinkling glass and a bit like magic and a bit more like heaven. The waves dip down a bit and there is a large rock from which the sound is emanating. It looks smooth and it glitters, gleaming brightest with each crack of lightning. Close to it, there is no storm. The water around it is calm and inviting. Enticed by the promise of smooth sailing and heavenly music, we steer towards it, closer, closer. The sound gets louder as we approach, clearer and more beautiful by the second. That is when we see her, a woman, lying on the rock. She looks elegant, like she is made of the water and could flow back into it, be a part of it. Myths of mermaids do not begin to measure up to the true nature of this creature. A siren. She must be. And yet, even with the knowledge of what she was and what she would do if we get closer, we get closer.
We call, to her, asking her name, and her response is a mere whisper, floating above the waves as part of the music, “Come closer, dear, and I’ll tell you everything.” It sounds like a promise, like ‘everything’ truly means everything.
Knowing the risks, knowing certain death awaits us, we steer closer, closer, grazing the rock, or maybe hitting it, or maybe more, but everything is fuzzy, warm and fresh and dry and soft. Welcoming. For months our mouths have been filled with the taste of salt, but now the air tastes fresh and clean, like a field of flowers. Our thirst is gone, but our hunger grows, not for food, but for something more.
She rises from her position draped over the rock, glimmering like sunlight and beckoning us towards her, towards the promise of satiation. Sea weariness turns to elation as we approach and the world outside our bubble of peace fades away. There is no longer a storm. There is no longer a sea. There is no longer a ship beneath us. We are floating on air, or so we think, closer, closer. Then the peace breaks.
She turns on us suddenly, shrieking terribly, noise crackling through our ears, her feathers beating at the air, scrambling backwards in what looks like fear, scaled feat scratching deep claw marks into the rock. The storm kicks up around us, seemingly doubled in strength and emanating straight out from her, winds pinning us to the deck. The haze clears as she points frantically at the hull of the ship where we now see a hole, wood splintered and caved in, exposing the insides. We wonder how it got there. She is still shrieking and pointing as the violent waves overturn what it is she is pointing at. A pile of corpses, some tied together, some with lose pieces of flesh hanging from them, but many just bones. They smell dreadful, rotted to unrecognizable, but we know them. They are us before we were us.
Individual bodies, weak and fragile and dying one by one, were sacrificed for the good of the collective. We became us.
The siren’s shrill screech clears a fog in our brains we did not know was even there. It shows a new, clear image. One of us. One of the past. We are singular, individuals each plagued by sickness, being killed slowly by an unsympathetic ocean. The image shifts, and there we are, that same pile of bones, only alive. We are being tied together though we are too weak to struggle. The strongest of us holds the ropes with a crazed look of desperation. The ocean kills us faster now, now that we are stuck in a pile, each losing blood from cuts carved in our flesh by two unsteady hands. We die in pain, but our suffering does not end with death. Bit by bit we are carried above, flesh cooking slowly in the scorching sun. Teeth tear our flesh, bit by bit, and slowly, we become us.
We look down and see one set hands where there was once many. We glimpse our reflection in the rock and see one face where there once was dozens. That one face is the face of a devil.
We jump overboard to the sound of a siren’s scream rather than its call, at the mercy of the waves below, dreading the hell that surely awaits us.