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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2. TWO

 

    The cliffs were a torn canvas of doom and glory. They had a grotesque sort of beauty - jagged, rough, but elegant. Aoide liked to lurk in one of the pools at their base, gazing up at them like one of the sailors might. Why did they see, when they laid eyes upon this sight for the first time? Did it beckon or repulse them? Were they overcome with awe or terror? She didn’t know. All she knew was this:

    No one wanted to die here.

    To die in a place like this was to slip off into the unknown without even a scream, the last echoes of life bouncing off the rock. To die here was to know that no man would survive to carry tales of heroism to the families at home. To die here was to die cowed, shrinking away from those oppressing cliffs in a haze of poisonous bliss. Doom, glory. The sailors searched for one. Sirens brought the other.

    The ship lumbered along, carried on the steady current that Aoide fought with a firm flap of her tail. A sailor stood watch as the prow sliced through the waves, parting the water like a manmade god. The figure carved into the front seemed to be staring at Aoide, accusing her of what she should rightfully be accused. Those cliffs seemed to be saying the same. Murderer.

    Aoide made her way to the hull of the ship, traced her clawed fingers over the slime of the barnacled wood. She felt movement in the water next to her, and turned as Tanis surfaced, fanged teeth bared in a grotesque sort of smile. “Which one have you claimed?” Tanis asked, her voice like a tumble of rough hewn rocks down the mountainside. So different from her song, but no less threatening.

    “None,” Aoide answered, her eyes on the sky. Before Tanis could reply, she added the necessary, “yet.”

    “Always so considerate,” Tanis hissed, blood red lips curling into a grin. Aoide had always wondered how they appeared to the humans. Were the humans so blind to beauty that they could find it misplaced in such hideous, pockmarked creatures? They must be, to lust after monsters. “Make your choice soon, sister. The currents are swift today.”

    Aoide merely nodded as Tanis sank back into the waves. One by one, more sirens appeared. Underwater, Aoide could see their shining eyes, honed in on their targets, ready for the signal.

    It was given.

    They surfaced almost as one, opening their red lips and casting their voices towards the heavens. The song that drifted out was haunting. Even though Aoide had heard it thousands of times, even though she sang it from her own lips, it chilled her. Letting out a little breath, Aoide dipped back under the water, circling around to the far side of the ship. If she did not claim a sailor, the other sirens would fault her for it. Aoide was not foolish enough to fail to appease them.

    The surface of the ship brought quiet commotion as sailors abandoned their posts and clustered about the sides. Their gazes held no alarm, only rapt fascination as they leaned over the rails, bodies yearning for the water and those it held. It was always the same; the sirens would cluster around the near side of the ship, leaving the one facing the cliffs open. The ship would drift that way, block out the sun, sink into the shadows. None of the sailors would notice how close the ship was to the shallows, not with their gazes to blinded by rapture, by lust. None of them would hear the rocks scraping at the wooden hull or the crash of the waves hitting the shoreline a stone’s throw away. The song would be the only thing, the last thing, that they would hear.

    Perhaps it was the distraction that left the sailors blind to the boy floating atop the water between the rocks and the ship. Or perhaps it was the way he drifted in the shadows, something strapped to his back and wedged between the rocks, keeping him stationary in the shallows. Perhaps it was the way he was so still - still like the men to which she sang. Still like all the sailors on the ship above would soon be.

    Aoide paused in the water. Had he been a conquest of one her sisters, he would not have been left here for such a peaceful death as floating off with the current. They were never granted such an easy sleep. No, he had escaped the notice of even the sirens, escaped their clutches. Aoide approached with the hesitance of a sinner at the gates of hell. She hovered just out of his reach, keeping her movements gentle so as not to disturb the water. Two wooden frames arched from the boy’s back, and Aoide traced one to where it was caught between two large rocks. She freed it, letting him loose to drift with the waves, bumping gently against the rocks.

    He began to stir. She began to sing.

    Whether for habit or self preservation or some deeper force, Aoide’s song was one of reluctance, of resignation, of apology. It was laced with regret, imbued with sorrow. It was sweet and beautiful and devastating. They were one in that moment - Aoide, the boy, her song. They merged for the briefest of seconds, connected by something invisible, intangible. And then the tide pulled out and came back with force, dashing their connection against the rocks. The sailor thrashed with wiry limbs, his eyes flashing with confusion. Aoide faltered. He stared at her, and she avoided his eyes. Aloof. It was the only way her job was to be done. Detached. It was the only way she could accept her duty. Removed. It was the only way she could survive.

Aoide continued to sing, her song ebbing and flowing like the water on the shore. And he watched. He had righted himself in the water, reached back to run his hands over the cracked wood strapped with leather to his chest. And then he had turned back to her, to watch. Not to move closer, not to try to touch. He simply watched. Aoide turned cold as if she was sinking to the depths of the sea. At this point, he should be throwing himself at her. Her arms should be wrapping around him, holding him tight as he melted into her. He should be begging for her to take him, to drag him beneath the waves and never let him surface for another gasp of treacherous air. She should be pulling him lower, lower, until his life escaped in tiny bubbles striving ever towards the surface. That is how it should be. That is how it always was.

    And yet, he watched.

    Aoide stopped her song, lowering her eyes to meet his. His eyes were the first human’s she had gazed upon in years, and they seemed all the bluer for it. Or perhaps that was merely the reflection of the sea. It was difficult to tell when they all seemed to bleed together into one watery end.

    “Who are you?” he asked, voice hoarse.

    His words brought Aoide to a halt. “I-“ she frowned. “Can you hear me?”

    “Yes,” the boy replied. His eyes were bright and clear and terrified in the way of the courageous. “Where am I? Who are you? The last I remember, I…” he looked up at the sun. “I was flying.”

    Humans could not fly. Once, sirens could. Once. But never humans.

    When the boy lowered his eyes to Aoide’s once again, some of the fear had eased from his features. He looked younger, more innocent, with a lock of wavy brown hair clinging to his wet forehead. “Why did you stop singing? Your voice is beautiful.”

     “Beautiful?” she echoed. Her own voice sounded harsh in her ears, but so did she look like a monster in her own eyes. What he saw, what he heard, was some idealistic version of beauty. It was not the truth. But sometimes lies were all the more beautiful for what truth they lacked.

    “Yes,” he answered, brow furrowing. The boy glanced around, treading water, eying the cliffs that loomed above. His gaze landed on the ship, which drifted ever closer to the shore as the crew ceased to steer. Ceased to live. “Where am I?” he asked again.

    Aoide could not make sense of him, of his questions, of his words. Every encounter with sailors had gone one way for as long as she could remember. There was only one way it could go. This boy, this conversation - they held no place in Aoide’s world. Humans, men, sailors, they were not ones to converse with. They were ones to lure, and all would be lured.  

On some level, Aoide was aware that the siren songs were dying off one by one, each followed by a splash. Soon, the rocks would fall quiet again, and the sirens would come to carry the ship off to crash in the remote cove, not here in the pass where they preyed. Soon, they would come across Aoide and this strange sailor boy who seemed unfazed by her song. They would not find him curious. They would find him marked for death.

    Aoide’s head whipped to where the last splash sounded. She didn’t have long. “Come.”

    “Where?” the boy asked. As if it mattered when he had no point of reference.

    Aoide offered no reply. She took his hand in hers and pulled him underwater, paying little heed to his need for air. Her tail worked hard against the water, propelling them as fast as she was able through the water. She knew the way to this place by heart; she could find it with blind eyes and senses numbed. It was her solitude, her sanctuary, the one place where the others had yet to find her. And she was taking a human there - a human whose continued survival negated her own.

    The moment they reached the underwater cave, the boy burst through the surface with gasping, heaving gulps of air. He dragged himself up upon the pebbled shore, his form distinguishable in the dark only to Aoide’s siren eyes. The rocky shell of the cave curved up and around them, forming a large pocket of air and a little beach, as uninviting as it was dark. The boy huddled there, panting, his hands trying to feel out his surroundings. “Where am I?” he demanded, his fear returning. “Where have you taken me?”

    “You are safe here, for now,” Aoide replied, her voice echoing around the walls. It made her words sound less trustworthy than she meant them.

    “Who are you?” the boy asked. His voice shook. “What do you want with me?”

    Aoide gazed at him, sure that her eyes were shining in the dark. “I want nothing with you.” It was the truth. “That does not mean I have the choice to let you leave.”

    “I-“

    “I must go now,” Aoide cut him off. “I will be back. Do not try to leave, or you will drown.” Her words were less a warning, more a promise.

    The boy closed his mouth. He seemed to be considering several replies, but decided on none.

    Aoide surveyed him for a long moment, the quick flicks of her tail underwater betraying her agitation. She was being foolish, she knew. To keep this boy alive, to try to solve the riddle of him was only to make it more difficult when she had to complete her task. And yet, Aoide could not stop herself from asking, “What is your name?”

    He was silent. After a while, it seemed as if the boy would not speak. Aoide turned to leave before the others noticed her absence. She could return to her puzzle once they were all resting in the depths. Aoide sank beneath the water, hearing only vaguely as she went, “Icarus.”

    Icarus.     

    What a noble name for a doomed boy.

 
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