Staring at the Sun

Icarus, the mortal who flew too high. Apollo, the god who fell too hard. Aoide, the siren tired of singing.

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4. FOUR

    

    Icarus was alone, and helpless. This occurred to Aoide several times after she left him, as she kept up appearances amongst her sisters. If one of them had seen her taking him, if one of them had followed, if one of them was watching him now from the shadows-

    Icarus might be strangely impervious to the sirens’ songs, but he had only the strength of a boy on the verge of a man, but not quite there. Sirens were monsters.

    Still, Aoide suspected that the sirens suspected nothing. She could be wrong. It was difficult to tell if anyone was following her as she slipped away from where they made their home amongst the kelp and coral. No light penetrated the bottom of the ocean, and despite her adjusted eyes, only so much was visible. Aoide could only hope. She could pray, too, but she expected none of the gods would heed her. She had killed too many of their favored ones.

    The cave was quiet when Aoide surfaced, and it took a moment for her ears to adjust to being above water before she could make out the quiet breaths of the human. Icarus. The name held weight, but not a weight she could identify. For a moment, Aoide studied him as he slept. He was peaceful, almost too peaceful. He reminded her too much of the bodies that went limp in her arms, of the heads cocked sideways, the throats bared, the eyes drifting closed. She woke him with a touch to his thin leg.

    Icarus sat up with a jolt, as if his spirit was forcefully returned to his body before it had finished exploring the nether. Aoide rested her arms on one of the large flat rocks that littered the shore. She offered him what she held in her fist - a sack made out of some sort of animal skin. Whatever it was, it kept the contents dry after she raided the littered remains of the most recent shipwreck.

    The cave was too dark for Icarus to see anything, so Aoide leaned forward and pressed the sack into his hands. Icarus held it at arm’s length, feeling its form to identify what it was.

    “From the ship,” Aoide told him. “Humans require more than seaweed to survive, I am told.”

    Icarus said nothing, but reached inside the bag and withdrew a small piece of flint and steel, as well as a small oil lamp. He lit it with practiced fingers, spreading light over the cave. The moment he could see, Icarus’s eyes snapped to Aoide. He looked half terrified, half awed by her presence. “You came back,” he commented.

    “I did,” she answered. “I said I would.”

    Dropping her gaze, Icarus gave a little nod and opened the bag again. Within was what food Aoide could scavenge from floating crates before her sisters caught her. He pulled out a large hunk of cheese wrapped in grape leaves, a few strips of dried fish, and some figs. Icarus surveyed the spoils, then set them aside tenderly.

    “You haven’t answered any of my questions.”

    Aoide folded her arms over one of the shallow rocks, her tail still submerged and flicking restlessly. “Ask them again.”

    “Where am I?”

    “Does it matter?” Aoide deflected.

    Icarus frowned at her, his fine features marred by suspicion. “That isn’t an answer.”

    Aoide rested her chin on her crossed arms, breathing in the salty scent of the water on her skin. “I do not know what humans call this place,” she admitted. “Other than ‘cursed’.”

    After holding her gaze for a moment, Icarus looked away. “Who are you?”

    “My name is Aoide,” she replied. “I am a siren.”

    Icarus’s eyes snapped back to hers. “A siren? I thought-“

    “And I thought that humans could not fly,” Aoide cut him off, with a pointed look at the frames that were propped up against the cave wall, leather straps dangling between them.

    Following her gaze, Icarus frowned again. “I… I can’t remember how I got in the air. All I remember was flying. And falling.”

    Aoide looked up at him from where she lounged, watching the emotions that his face circled through. Humans were so expressive. There was sadness, fear, worry, and something bolder. Exhilaration, maybe. Determination. Aoide wondered what it would be like to be human. To feel so much in such short amounts of time.

    “You’re a siren,” Icarus repeated, his voice drawing Aoide from her thoughts. “Why did you not drown me?”

    “Why did you not drown yourself?”

    “Pardon?”

    Aoide flicked her tail under the water. “I sang my song to you as my sisters did to every sailor on that ship. They threw themselves into the waves, but you did not. What do you possess that they do not?”

    Icarus only shook his head, eyes downcast. “Nothing.”

    “It must be something,” Aoide urged. “We sirens were created to be the paragons of beauty in human eyes. Your comrades were overcome with lust - how do you resist?”

    “My comrades?” Icarus echoed. “I don’t think I was from the ship.”

    It was Aoide’s turn to frown. “If you do not remember, how can you be certain?”

    The shadows cast by the lamp dated across the wall as Icarus considered this. “I don’t know. It didn’t seem familiar.”

    “What seems familiar?” There were two puzzles to solve here, more than Aoide had been graced with in decades. There was something cruel in the monotony of murder.

    “The sun,” Icarus answered without hesitation.

    “The sun is familiar to everyone. It shines upon everyone day after day. It will not help you find your way home.”

    Icarus looked up at the roof of the cave, damp with condensation and crawling with shadows. “The sun doesn’t shine down here.”

    The water lapped at the rocks as Icarus and Aoide sat in silence. Aoide wondered so many things about him. Where he was from, why he had crashed into the ocean, why he resisted her song. And yet, she let the silence reign. It seemed the only way forward. Her voice caused nothing but destruction. Solutions required silence.

    Icarus seemed to disagree. After a while, he grew restless, standing to pace the cave in his thin sandals that flapped with each step. “Aoide?” he asked, his voice cutting through the silence like a flash of gold.

    “Yes?”

    “Do sirens really… drown all the sailors? Every one?”

    Aoide closed her eyes and nodded. “Every one.”

    “Why?”

    Why? Aoide had wondered this many times. Of course, she knew the reason. But it did little to satisfy the guilt, to justify the senseless killing of so many innocent men. “It is a sad story.”

    “Tell it to me.”

    Aoide flipped so that she was floating on her back, gaze cast towards the ceiling. Her bare skin was on display, but Icarus didn’t even so much as glance at it. “Sit down,” she told him, “and listen.”

    Icarus did as he was told, sitting cross-legged next to the lamp and little pile of food. He leaned back against the wall, but his eyes shone with rapt attention.

    “We were not always monsters,” Aoide said, her voice wistful for times past. Her eyes focused on the dark. “We were once Persephone’s chosen companions. Those were beautiful times - when we soared the sky instead of scouring the seas. Demeter had given us wings to better protect Persephone. We were thankful; Persephone was like a queen to us. We would have done anything for her, and, as Demeter thought, we too thought that the wings would help us.”

    Aoide swallowed, feeling that pull in the bottom of her stomach, that intangible sigh of regret. “We were wrong. Some of us, we got distracted by the wings. By the freedom to soar through the air and look upon the world from above. It was exhilarating.”

    “I know,” Icarus muttered quietly. Aoide glanced over at him, straining from her awkward angle. He had his eyes closed, head against the rock. “I don’t remember much, but I remember the freedom. It is… intoxicating.”

    “Intoxicating,” Aoide agreed. “Yes, that was it. Some of us were to stay with Persephone at all times, but we… we got carried away. One of the sirens had learned a new trick in the air, and we said we were only leaving her for a moment, that all would be fine. We returned just as the earth was closing up behind her. Hades had been waiting for the opportunity, and we laid it bare before him.”

    Icarus’s voice was firm when he replied, “You can’t be blamed for enjoying yourselves just for a moment.”

    “Yes, we can,” Aoide replied, closing her eyes again. “Demeter blamed us. She tore our wings from us, stripped us of our feathers. We so enjoyed seeing the world from above, so she cursed us to only lurk below. To live in the depths where the warmth of the sun cannot penetrate, to prey on the sailors who stumbled upon us. The song we sing, it is for Persephone. It has always been for Persephone, and so it always will be. She turned us into monsters - creatures to be feared, and never to be trusted. Everything beautiful that humans see about us, it is an illusion. We are hideous inside.”

    “That’s not true.” Aoide did not acknowledge Icarus’s words. “Why didn’t you fight her?”

    “Why would we?” replied Aoide. “We, too, blamed ourselves. We loved Persephone with everything we had. We let her be taken. We deserved our punishment.”

    When Icarus spoke again, his words were laced with anger. “You are not to blame.”

    Aoide shifted so that she was upright in the water and could better face him. “Even if we were not to blame for Persephone, could you say the same for drowning hundreds of sailors since?”

    “You have no choice. It is your curse.”

    “We always have a choice.”

    Icarus’s eyes cut to Aoide’s, and she wanted to sink back into the water where she felt comfortable. For this innocent boy to damn her, she must truly be a monster. “What do you mean? Why do you drown sailors then?”

    Aoide could have told him what would happen to her if she chose to let a sailor go. She could have cleared up his perception of her in a moment, but she didn’t. Being cast away with the damned only hurt when that was not where one belonged. Aoide didn’t reply to his question, simply gazed at him until he looked away.

    There was a long period of silence, broken only by the water and the drips of condensation from the rock.

    “You didn’t drown me,” Icarus pointed out.

    “I did not,” Aoide agreed.

    “Why?”

    Aoide surveyed him. She turned away. “I must go. I will return later.”

    “Wai-“

    Aoide let the water close over her ears and drown out the voice of the damned.

 

--[]--

 

Underwater was a sight that had once fascinated Aoide. After spending her whole life on land and even a portion in the sky, to be underwater was almost enchanting. The sun filtered through the waves, casting moving bands of light that reached for the ocean floor only to give up a few yards in. Through the darkness, Aoide could still see the fish darting between the coral and seaweed framework that made up the sirens’ dwellings.

    There was a time when she would stare at the fish for hours, watching their bright colors and reflective scales. Oh, to be so innocent again.

    Slipping back into the maze of coral, Aoide did her rounds, making sure she was seen and pretending like she had never left. Once satisfied that her presence was known, Aoide retreated into one of the side chambers, swimming in to find Penelope braiding different colors of seaweed into an organic tapestry.

    “Aoide,” she greeted, a smile flickering across her face. “Where have you been?”

    “Around,” Aoide replied. “We must have missed each other.”

    Penelope nodded. It wasn’t uncommon.

    To say that Penelope was Aoide’s closest friend wasn’t saying much. They spoke once every few weeks, or sometimes months. Years ago, Aoide thought they were similar enough to be kindred spirits. This was a thought gone from her mind.

    “You are quiet,” Penelope observed. “You always do this after a lure.”

    Aoide glanced over at her from where her gaze was fixed on a collection of perfect shells. “Do what?”

    “Go silent. Let it get to you.” Penelope’s long fingers weaved another row. “You always were the sensitive type.” Derision in her voice, ice in her eyes.

    As if Aoide didn’t have a right to be upset about the murder of innocent men. “I came to ask you a question,” Aoide replied, forcing herself away from scrambling to her own defense. She had long ago given up trying in that regard. “Have you ever had a sailor impervious to your charms?”

    Penelope’s hands stilled. She met Aoide’s gaze. “No, of course not. We become what the sailors are attracted to. If a man fancies other men, we appear as a man. They do not see us for our true forms, so why should our masks be restricted?” Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

    Aoide shook her head. “A mere thought that crossed my mind. Nothing more.”

    “Aoide, if you have encountered such a sailor, you know what must be done.” Penelope’s voice turned thoughtful. “I had heard rumors that once or twice sailors were impervious, but not through wax or rope. By their nature,” she mused. “Of course, the sirens knew they could not let him pass. Together, they overpowered him by force, not by song. Sirens protect their own.” She lifted her gaze. “Aoide, if you-“

    “I told you, I did not,” Aoide said, her voice jagged like the coral surrounding them. She forced herself to calm. “At first, it seemed that way,” she lied. “But he gave in to my song. They always do. It merely spurred my thinking.”

    After searching her expression, Penelope seemed to accept this. “Well. If it should ever happen, alert the others. We will help you take care of him.” When Aoide didn’t reply, she pressed, “You know what they say about a sailor escaping once he has heard the song, don’t you?”

    “I do,” Aoide replied.

    “Keep it close to mind,” Penelope instructed. Her gaze was piercing, and Aoide did not stand it for long. She nodded her goodbye and swam from the room, heading away from the sirens and towards the light. She knew what the spell said. She knew.

    Should a sailor escape with the song in his ears, the siren who sang shall die.

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