(Author’s Note : This one’s a bit of a doozy. It’s in my fairy tale collection and is my own retelling of the Little Mermaid story, with a lot of changes. If you don’t like change this might not be for you, but I do. It gets rather long, though still counts as a short story. I have decided to post it in five parts, because that is a lot to read on a screen. Save your eyes.)
by Serena W. Sorrell
The ship pitched and the waves crashed. The sky had turned like eggs gone bad. The wind blew fierce and a hundred voices sang fury. Vandkys hid underfoot, hoping very much to be forgotten. The ship pitched and the mast cracked. Lightning spewed from the green clouds above. The fog blinded the sailors and droned with a hum. Vandkys thumbed the locket at her throat with a prayer on her lips. The ship pitched and the hatch tore open. The tempest would be her end. Hands clawed for her, wretched her grip from the rail, and tongues cursed her life. Barely a splash as the girl was heaved overboard. Vandkys hit the thrashing waves, spluttering and choking. The ship pitched and the winds howled louder. The curse of a woman sacrificed to the ocean’s wrath. Vandkys pedaled with boots not meant for walking on water.
The tempest raged louder. Voices rose on the swell and ripped through the gale. The sailors aboard realized at last the storm’s creators. Fumbling, bumbling they ran like ants in the rain. A single loud note sang above the crack of thunder. Iron nails dropped to the deck. Plank by plank, board by board, the ship swayed. Vandkys struggled to keep her head above the salt water only to watch the ship crumble like a house of cards blown over in a single breath. Men were screaming in the water around her. Men were swimming and groping for wood. With the ship lost and the men sunk the storm cleared. Long dark things swam beneath their thrashing feet. Until plucked from below their screams lost to the sirens’ sweet, hungry call.
Crimson stained the sea as the sirens fed. Something powerful brushed along Vandkys. Her scream stayed while those of the men sounded louder than the sirens’ song. Plink! Another man under. Plop! Another joined his crew. Barely a sound as every sailor was plucked from the surface and dragged into the undertow. Vandkys waited her turn. Her legs ached and skin baked in sunlight. Still, Vandkys kicked and tried to stay afloat. Again, something swam past her leg, snaked across her hip. Vandkys would not cry. Vandkys would not scream. Vandkys would save her last breath. She would drown with her knife in a siren’s cold heart. Her legs, too tired to churn water longer, Vandkys took a deep breath and sank underwater. She would face the murdering sirens head on, but she found only one.
Black eyes, wondering, watched. Sharp teeth, needle-thin, smiled. Her body was long. Her body was lithe. Her fins were jagged and dark, and trailed the sides of her tail. Obsidian scales sparkled violet underwater and the tail ended in a point. This siren had been one of the many who had killed the crew; the crew that meant to kill her, too. This siren swam circles around Vandkys and her knife faster than an arrow. This siren, delicate grays and blues mottled her breast. This siren, dark violet cloaked her back. This siren, her tail whipped through the water like a dancer’s ribbon. This siren, the most beautiful thing Vandkys had ever seen. She dropped her knife.
Trails of bubbles escaped human lungs and human vision blurred. Joy, however, swelled inside the girl. That the siren should should be the last beautiful thing she see made letting go of life easy. Human eyes closed and human girl sank. Cold mouth pressed to lips. Breath refilled Vandkys and strong arms held her close. The siren and the girl bobbed on the ocean’s surface, cool and calm. No hint of the storm and murder that had been. Vandkys touched warm lips where she received the siren’s air. She remained held by the sea monster. A small rippling the only hint at her gyrating tail which kept them afloat.
It was silly. It was useless. Thanking a siren who spoke the words of the fishes. Her black eyes blinked. She had no nose, only two short, closed slits as gills. She had no ears, only a long quill on either side of her head. She had no hair, only scales, longer, sharper, thinner, almost like a porcupine. Oh, but she was beautiful.
“You are welcome.”
Surprise gripped Vandkys as strong as the siren did. Her voice was a song, the ringing of bells and some mythical instrument unheard in a thousand years. Vandkys wanted to listen to that voice as long as she could.
“I am called Halimeda, girl. I will take you to land.”
“Halimeda,” Vandkys tasted each syllable. “I am Vandkys. I come from lands still far from here. My voyage onboard was two thirds done only. I’m afraid it would be a long swim.”
“Do you doubt my strength and my stamina? Dare you doubt my tail, little girl?”
“I doubt nothing you can do, Halimeda. I wish only to warn the voyage will take you far from your home and I wish not to cause trouble.”
At this Halimeda laughed. A dozen twinkling silver bells beside a giggling brook could not compare. Oh, what beauty in every sound, in every breath, in her every movement.
“This place is no home to the sirens. It is a hunting grounds, and a garden, you humans would say.” With a wicked gleam of those long needle teeth Halimeda added, “No human has ever found the home of the sirens, girl, and none ever will. I shall save you from a cruel life and return you to land.”
And so Halimeda swam. Sometimes Vandkys clung to Halimeda’s back, careful of her spiny scales. Sometimes Halimeda held Vandkys in arms to her pale chest. At night Halimeda set Vandkys upon a floating bed of sargassum and reappeared at dawn. Halimeda fed Vandkys fish of every kind, every day. She scolded more than once to ensure Vandkys drank the fluids from their bodies. Day after day Halimeda swam with her Vandkys cargo. And, day after day, Vandkys spoke more and more to Halimeda, answering every question the siren had.
“Tell me, girl, what will you do when you reach home?”
With a long sigh Vandkys answered, “I will be curried up and sold like a mare by next spring to a groom. Unless my father considers me dead, which he very well might,” she added with hope. To Halimeda’s bewildered gaze Vandkys elaborated further, “I am the sole daughter to a widower blacksmith. I can bend metal as well as any man, forge armor, sword, or cooking pan. My curse, father says, is being born a woman. I cannot inherit his shop as he did from his father, and so he means me to marry.” Here Vandkys pouted, she soured, folded her arms and declared, “Even though I am fifty times the blacksmith my groom will ever be.”
Halimeda tittered at her reply, “Perhaps I did you a disservice then, saving you from the sea. Why, with all that anger you’d even make a fine siren.”
Halimeda’s laugh stopped with the last syllable, she looked utterly abashed. To distract the siren from her gloom Vandkys asked question after question on the topic of the sea, all of which Halimeda answered most earnestly. She spoke with mirth about the ocean, the bounties of its depths, she told stories of the creatures she spent her time with, and where all the best places were for fish and lobsters and octopus. But, when Vandkys inquired on the topic of sirens Halimeda’s replies disappeared with a ripple as she dove down and swam where Vandkys could not follow.
At sea for near a week Vandkys sighed upon her seat of sargassum as she munched Halimeda’s latest catch. Halimeda, who ate her meals in Vandkys’ company, always regarding her with deep curious eyes, cocked her head to the side. The motion, though simple, was more human than siren, thought Vandkys. And while Halimeda meant to know the source of her sighs Vandkys knew the siren would weave away from her questions as she always did. Although, Vandkys was almost bitter a moment, the human had answered every question Halimeda had about life upon the lands. So, Vandkys sucked at her fish and chewed up its bones while Halimeda finished hers.
“You are displeased,” Halimeda stated in her voice which rang like music with every word. “You wish to know more of my waters, as I of your lands.”
Vandkys replied with a nod, for fear to speak the request to the air. Halimeda chomped her pointy teeth in the way she did when she thought on a matter. Vandkys was learning every one of her siren’s habits, day by day. Their journey would last only another day, perhaps two, and the human was not ready for farewells.
“Vandkys,” it was the first time Halimeda sang her name and the girl gasped, “beneath the waves it becomes darker, in more ways than one. You will see truths you cannot unsee. Would you still travel down to the deep with me until night?”
“How could I–– oh, but I would love to. If I could, I would want to know the world you see.”
At this Halimeda gnashed her teeth harder. Though it was a lovely dream, a dream it would remain. For a human paddled like a pup compared to a siren. Then, of course, the matter of breathing. It had made her happy enough just to hear Halimeda speak her name. It was enough.
Halimeda took Vandkys’ hand with her webbed fingers and dark, scaly arm. As always it was a strength astounding. Vandkys plopped into the water, graceless, into something rather resembling an embrace. Halimeda smelled of salt and sunshine, and something unfathomably deep. Once again, though different than before, Halimeda’s flat lips pressed to Vandkys’. It was almost a kiss, but instead something flowed into Vandkys and at once she understood she’d been given a gift.
“Now you will be able to breathe in the sea. Though I cannot give you a tail or fins or sharp teeth,” Halimeda’s black eyes reflected the girl, but some emotion from long ago too shone, “those things are gained in other ways.” She shook her head and the barbels where ears ought to be swayed with her too, “Shall we swim then?”
Vandkys, though curious what haunted Halimeda’s thoughts, silenced herself with a smile and firm nod. She would not fear whatever lurked in the world deep below. Halimeda still held her wrist as they dove beneath the surface. The ocean became air and Vandkys breathed it in. She laughed at the sensation, giddy all at once. Halimeda smiled at the girl’s simple joy. Vandkys held Halimeda’s arm with her other hand, so quickly did the siren swim it was all the girl could do to cling to that arm, her anchor as they swam ever deeper.
Not far in the distance bloated ghosts seemed to float to meet them. Three jellyfish, Vandkys thought at once, giant. The biggest she’d ever seen. Then arms beckoned to her from atop the soft undulating bells, tentacles followed in the current. Women, spun of the opaque glass of jellyfish, wore their body like a ballroom dress. The three ghosted closer. Their beauty was frightening. Their ballet sway hypnotic. Their beckoning smiles promised a terrible death. Halimeda snapped her teeth at the phantoms. With ease and a flick of her long tail Halimeda from harm’s reach.
“Mercida.” Halimeda answered the question which would Vandkys could not speak. “They are the remains of women who kill themselves at sea. Oh, there are more than you think,” she spoke to a horror Vandkys could not shake from her face. “They die for love, for honor, for laws, for losses; the mercida die for many a reason, and sometimes none at all. When one of your kind throw themselves to the waves they become a mercida. Relentless scavengers hungering for hearts and emotions. Remember them well, and never do as they did.”
To Halimeda’s warning Vandkys only stared back at the mercida, floating and lost. They ever beckoned and danced for life. Vandkys longed to ask Halimeda what she hungered for, and whether she had a heart. Yet, Halimeda swam deep, and deeper still, until Vandkys was blind with such dark. Along Halimeda’s scales, her patterns, and barbels the siren glowed softly and gave sight to the human. Not much light at all, but enough to see nearby, and Vandkys wondered if she wanted to see farther than that. There were eyes on them, giant blinking, yellow and greens. Creatures bigger than the siren slithered on either side. Still, onward Halimeda swam. Vandkys safe by her side.
Ahead thick sea lettuce clung to stones and coral. Halimeda swan on through, Vandkys in tow with no choice but to be a passenger. The slippery wisps caressed Vandkys in passing. Abrupt, the sea lettuce stopped, only a perimeter wall. Vandkys clutched Halimeda tight at the sight all around. Even spaced anchors grew thick with algae, tendrils of it wrapped around the legs and torsos of humans. Anguished faces some, others at peace, one or two half-eaten, they all floated dead. The garden of drowned men.
Could Vandkys’ soft fingernails pierce Halimeda’s scales she would have swam away at once. A veil lifted from her eyes leaving only faces, upon faces, upon faces. But Halimeda held Vandkys tight, held her close so she could not flee. The sudden movement and fear caused a stir not so far. In the center of the drowned, in the crook of an anchor rested a siren thrice the size of small Halimeda. A slender, gargantuan hand plucked off an arm while platter-sized eyes flickered lightning blue turned to Vandkys. The giantess swallowed the limb she’d rent from its owner, never blinking as she watched the small human. Halimeda stayed back, at the edge of the sea lettuce fence, but pushed Vandkys behind her ever so.
“Hail Queen of Oceans,” Halimeda’s singsong voice trembled more than a bit. “It was not my intent to interrupt you. I swim now, by your word.”
“Halimeda.” The Ocean Queen sang, not in bells and brooks, but in thunder deep and lung-shaking resonance. “What have you there? That thing you mean to hide?”
At this inquiry the Ocean Queen snapped off a leg of her late noon lunch. Vandkys breathed the water in and out just as quick as panic in air. When sailors spoke of sea monsters they feared creatures like Halimeda, but they’d never fathom what horror waited deep. Halimeda kept Vandkys half hidden, though those great shining eyes felt to see through everything, even words, and lies, and souls. Halimeda moved in a way which could have been a bow to a siren.
“It is a human, thrown into the sea during my coven’s last hunt. The men thought to quell our singing with the life of a girl.”
If the Ocean Queen had thoughts on the matter share them she did not. Halimeda spoke on, as if to please Vandkys’ case. Perhaps instead she plead for the tiny human life.
“I thought it a waste for one so small to be given the fate waiting in the undertow’s final embrace,” Halimeda tensed, if she bolted away the Queen would only need stretch out an arm to catch them again. “I mean to take her to her lands, as close as your laws bid. I brought her here to see her good fortune to set foot on land once more. And, to gain satisfaction the men who had meant her harm are now silent subjects of your domain.”
Still the Queen stared, until at last her voice shook Vandkys inside, “A fair plan, Halimeda. Our fate is not a good one for all, but––” and here she paused, Vandkys felt Halimeda hold her breath, “never share yourself with a human again. Our place is not theirs to see.”
Halimeda bowed once more and reeled round through the fence made of sea lettuce with speed faster than Vandkys knew she was able. Vandkys clung to the siren as she sliced through the waters. First she swam far, in a straight line, gaining as much distance from the garden is very short time. Though Vandkys suspected is was the Queen she was fleeing, not for her own sake, but for her human company. They began to rise at last, spiraling higher to adjust the small girl for the surface above. Yet, ever as they swam, no matter how fast or how slow, Vandkys could not shake the feel that somewhere deep down two giant, electric blue eyes hunted them still.
A feeling Halimeda seemed to share, for when they reached the sargassum once more Halimeda swam further, past one more, and past two. At last at the third floating island of weeds Halimeda let Vandkys climb out of her arms. Vandkys settled back onto her bobbing seat, far from Halimeda’s long reach. Though she held little doubt the siren could reach her if she should so choose. Halimeda, for her part, swam a bit away from the raft. A long silence passed. Neither one spoke. Emotions flowed through Vandkys like the waters around her, pity and sadness for the self-damned mercida, anger and disgust for the garden of drowned men, then horror and fear at remembering the Queen. She had eaten a man’s limbs, bones, sinew, and all. And now, it struck Vandkys, Halimeda did too.
Of course, Vandkys had known sirens sank ships down with their songs, but she’d never before guessed why for. Had it always been for the meat carried on board? Halimeda had saved her. Vandkys did not doubt this. What might possess an eater of men to save her instead? Vandkys watched as the waves lapped over Halimeda. Halimeda stared back, her black eyes soft, almost pleading. The Queen of the Ocean, booming, said something, and now it stuck in her mind and came out her throat.
“Halimeda, what did you save me from?”
Needle sharp teeth ground behind a closed mouth. Halimeda had an answer, but did not wish to share. She smiled, all teeth, her eyes crinkled too, and at last opened her mouth to give Vandkys a lie.
“I saved you from drowning, of course. Without me you would have perished by the second day’s sun.”
Not a lie then, but not the whole truth. Vandkys was young, yes, but she was not dull. She would have the truth from Halimeda of the fate she had missed. Vandkys narrowed her eyes and spoke with all her strength, a final demand.
“I thank you for that, but lie anymore and I’ll drown myself here. In the middle of the sargassum where you cannot reach. And, as you taught me today I’d become a mercida, ever seeking food, whether hearts or emotions.”
At the threat of death Halimeda darted forward and Vandkys further back. She was truly upon the thickest knot of the floating raft of seaweed. It’d be terrible, but she’d do it to learn the whole truth. Life as a mercida could be no worse than the corpse the sailors had meant her to be.
“You would have become one of us had I let you drown.”
“One of who? A siren? But sirens are…”
She stopped. Vandkys had never considered the quandary before. What was a siren but a songstress who sang seamen to their deaths. Yet only that morning Vandkys had never known of the existence of mercida, fate of a woman who kills herself at sea. Halimeda’s words twisted, they turned in her mind. Vandkys tried to ignore the meaning she’d gleaned.
“You were drowned at sea,” the girl barely whispered, “but not by your choice.”
Halimeda did not blink. She did not come any closer. Halimeda, for a very brief moment, looked human to Vandkys, a girl not much older than she. The weight of this truth drowned her. Vandkys’ tongue froze in her mouth, her heart felt icy with chill, but at Halimeda’s next words anger thawed her like fire.
“I was murdered at sea, no accident or slip. I was murdered just as surely as they’d meant to do to you. Women murdered at sea we have none of the mercida’s softness, we died not by our own choice. A siren is made when the murdered awakes, hatred and anger fill her up. So she sings songs of destruction, and brings doom to men like the ones who killed her. Is it wrong they become our food?” Halimeda’s ringing bell voice became sharper now, trill. She questioned herself, reflected in the ripples around. “A siren’s first memory upon waking like this is the death they endured at the evil hands of such people. I saved you from that. I saved you from anger. I saved you from hating them all, and wanting their murder.”
Halimeda would not raise her black eyes to Vandkys, so she gasped at the splash by the edge of sargassum. She so feared Vandkys meant to make good on her threat when she darted forward she was met by Vandkys’ arms wrapping around her neck underwater. The barbels on each side of her head tasted the salt Vandkys added to the sea, tears that she wept for a girl long ago killed, tears that she wept for the siren, Halimeda, now.
Halimeda swam her to the surface and lifted her back onto the living raft. No one had ever cried for Halimeda, none that she knew. If anyone had they’d be long turned to dust. Halimeda had been a siren already centuries old. She had no memories of family, or life upon land, she had no memories of love, or of a home, but she remembered the hatred, still hot after so many ages, and she remembered the fear that another should suffer the undying ember even the ocean could never quench. That had been why she had rescued the girl. Never ending rage and lust for more murder did not suit someone with a heart as kind as Vandkys. For who else would weep for a murderer, who fed on flesh of their victims, and made homes from the wreckage they sang down to the sea floor. Who would weep for such a monster except Vandkys?
Another day’s travel and they reached as far inshore as ocean laws would allow Halimeda to swim. From there she put Vandkys upon a small raft made of reeds and some bits of sargassum. She instructed her well, told her not to act too well. Stumble a bit, and tell them the ship had gone down half a day’s sail from port, rather than where Halimeda and her group had sunk it instead. Vandkys promised to do her best acting, but how her heart ached. She knew after Halimeda sang her a wind carrying the sargassum inshore she would never see her again.
“Halimeda,” Vandkys was desperate to keep that voice in her head, “what happens to people who die at sea through no fault of any?”
“Oh, the ocean welcomes them and their body feeds fishes. Then their spirit goes back to land to find life again.”
At this Vandkys gawked. “The ocean? But, surely it can’t know how a person dies, where, or even when.”
“If someone died in your arms wouldn’t you know?”
Halimeda smiled at this. A secretive smile, siren and foreign, the kind of smile someone living on land could never understand. Yet, somehow, Vandkys did. She unclasped her golden locket, inside her name was engraved and across it a picture of her mother, the picture was faded and bloated with water, but she leaned forward and hooked it around Halimeda’s slender neck. With a sharp shell she cut a lock of her hair and wound the curl inside the locket’s chest. Then, leaning forward, with all of her courage, she kissed Halimeda. It wasn’t a kiss to put breath in her lungs, no magical breath to bring her on land, but a simple, warm, heartfelt kiss.
Vandkys’ face heated. Her cheeks flushed red with the feelings she’d just pressed to Halimeda’s lips. Halimeda herself stayed perfectly still, she blinked once, and again.
“I–– I haven’t any treasure so grand as yours to gift you, but I can give this.”
From over her heart, if human she’d been, Halimeda pulled off a lighter than sky scale. She took Vandkys’ hand lightly in hers and wrapped her soft fingers around the hard, jagged edges. A droplet of blood still leaked from where the scale had come, though Vandkys marveled the blood was of the darkest blue.
“This is a siren’s heart scale. It has many uses, perhaps in time you’ll discover how best it may serve you. Good-bye, Vandkys. I am glad I saved you, but I am sorry to see you leave.”
And then Halimeda sang. She sang soft, low notes before Vandkys could say good-bye. Her haunting notes blew the raft farther away, toward land, before Vandkys could give the emotion in her heart words. She never took her eyes from the siren singing her home. Not even a second, she didn’t dare blink. It wasn’t until sand scraped the underside of the sargassum, Halimeda at last disappeared, taking her song and Vandkys’ heart with her.