Siren’s Lament

This selection is paired with Book 12 of The Odyssey by Homer. Get Issue 22 of NonBinary Review from Zoetic Press.

In the twelfth century B.C.E., Odysseus sacked Troy and turned his eyes, thoughts and footsteps toward Ithaca and home. But having bested and blinded Polyphemus in the ninth book with a stake of wood and shit and thereby being cursed by the Cyclop’s father Poseidon to wander in far reaches for a decade, he found himself the most notorious tourist in unknown lands.

For a year he lived with the sorceress Circe on the isle Aeaea, after defeating her spells (with Hermes guidance) and retrieving his crew from her pig troughs. As a parting gift, she warned him in book twelve of the dilemma of Scylla the six-headed cave demon and Charybdis the unescapable whirlpool. His vessel’s path lay by clear fate past one of the two. And she warned him of the island of Thrinacia, where none must eat of the sacred livestock of Helios. And she doubly warned him of the Sirens.

These beautiful and treacherous harpies of wondrous living flesh and feathered wings were the first terrible danger they must encounter on this leg of their extended dark sea voyage. The Sirens destroyed any ships that sailed within earshot of their thrilling, clear and sultry voices raised in pure enchantment. Their songs wafted far from their meadowed shore, and none who caught the lilt of their dulcet and magic tones could avoid letting it lead their keels onto the jagged crags.

Homer never told us of what they actually sang. But Odysseus knew.

The hero stuffed his sailors’ ears with wax and ordered them to bind him to the strongest mast. He thought in this manner he could learn the song of the Sirens in comparative safety. The Sirens found little amusement in such a ploy. Except for one of them. She had followed the exploits of the warrior since the war. She had even carved a perfect tiny replica of a Trojan horse from driftwood with her sharpened talons. Though Homer does not honor us with her name, others have. She was called Ligeia.

Odysseus was trussed up with sailors’ skill and could not hope to loose himself or to communicate with his now deaf crew. What his maps had not shown him was the true distance between Aeaea and Scylla, and what they could not show him was the sphere of influence of the harpies. For many hours he stood wracked with the pain of the rough cutting ropes and with the agony of thirst. His men had forgotten him in their working of the oars through leagues of doldrums. He mused sardonically to himself that this at least should have been expected. His men were brave and strong and loyal—and idiots. Some had never gotten over that swine transformation incident.

As he dwelt on this flaw in his own reasoning, Selene’s night orb rose and the air crackled with an odd form of charge. A humming lurked within the charge. It steadily resolved itself into individual notes, and what perfect tinkling bell-like notes they were.

The moonbeams struck the bone-white sails above him with a silver edge that wavered as the echoes rose and fell. The soft sounds became a tune and at length a song. He was now aware that each chord was made entirely of women’s voices. There were no instruments within the melody, and of course he accepted there were no women. The harmony was unexcelled and the crispness of the wild rhythm physically pulled on his body. He found he was already straining at the ropes.

His jaw went slack and he tilted his head in the direction of the music. Many calls danced in his mind, in many vocal ranges, and all were perfect separately and together, but one voice whispered above the others, eventually dominating his rhapsody.

A fog arose and swirled near the distant sea line; it slowly parted to reveal a ghostly winged form. Odysseus was never able to determine if the moonlight played him a trick or if the maiden occupied more of his mind than of his eyes, but very soon he could study her at his leisure.

He felt no wind, but mad black hair flowed about her form as if in a vortex. He judged its length to match the bright plumed pennate wings that spread around her—both reached to the bottom of her white gossamer gown. She held a long arm toward him; the hand ended in pale fingers and long shiny violet nails.

Her brow was as bloodless as her arm and fingers, though her classic cheekbones were pinkly accented. Her nose was small and perfectly formed, and her eyes were enormous and black and unblinking, though he had never before seen eyes so liquid. Notwithstanding her attitude and expression of perfect contentment, the eyes appeared ready to burst with tears that at length never fell. He was absolutely certain that she was staring at him.

Her ruby lips were parted in a slight smile and from her mouth issued the singing of the dominant line he had heard, and a little later this line was nearly all that made the tune. Then she spoke, still in a type of chime or mellifluous chant, and he glimpsed white teeth that gleamed both perfect and still a touch too sharp.

“Your crewmen’s ears are wax-stuffed, hero of Troy,” she whispered, though he heard all perfectly. “You bring us silly human candles, with wicks instead of wits.”

His chest heaved brutally forward. He wished nothing on earth but to kiss those lips and drink in those words. He beat his head backward against the hard mast to clear it. “Do not torment me, Harpie!” he bellowed. His men naturally heard him not. “We have had our share of monsters ere now.”

She laughed cruelly—even this was intoxicating. “You do not yet know what monsters are, Odysseus.”

He was startled. “You know my name?”

Another laugh. “I could sing your whole biography.”

“Have you a name?” he asked, sincerely curious.

“I am called Ligeia. Generations from now, Homer will inscribe the wonders that are you. But three millennia hence a writer will equate my name with undying love. Do not fear me.”

“I fear nothing!” bellowed Odysseus with a bluster that he did not truly feel.

“Good,” came the chiming reply. “Cut those ropes and come talk with me.”

He motioned to two crewmen who were watching him. They approached, and Odysseus smiled; a smile that faded when the men wrapped more ropes about him, pulled them tight, and moved away.

Ligeia let out a lilting giggle though her eyes still looked full of tears. “Always in command, my fine warrior. Yet not as much in control as you imagine. I have heard things in my dealings with Circe. She’s not in love with you, whatever you believe. She may even hate you in some measure as her efforts to bewitch you failed so utterly. Thank Hermes for your delivery. As an aside, how certain are you of your true wife Penelope’s troth? Or of your boy Telemachus’ respect and love? They may be waiting for you. I am without a doubt. You know this now in your soul. Would you trade a certainty for a question mark?”

“You have pulled the ear of the enchantress a bit too far, methinks.”

“No age of your life is closed to me, Odysseus. Circe’s facts are but a fraction of my understanding. Your men fashioned strong ropes and cords to lash you upright to your main mast to spare you. You sliced a great circle of wax and molded it with your own strong hands and the sun’s heat into earplugs to spare them. You gave some few gold coins to Circe for both the Aeaean rope and cerumen. Circe purchased both from me.”

“Why that cursed little witch!”

“You had two sons to her, I recollect. She has breached no trust, and all her prophecy to you has come true—or shall. She has outlined the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis in all their accuracy. You will sail past Scylla, and will lose a crewman to each of her six heads. So leave that half dozen you most suspect of thievery or disloyalty nearest the rail. Not that it will matter. You will lose the rest after they slay the livestock of Helios on Thrinacia. Which they will. Does it surprise you that they will eat the sacred cattle?”

“It would not surprise me if they married them. I love my men but they are morons.”

Ligeia laughed. “But I am no danger to you or to your crew, Odysseus, as you surely now realize. Or if I am, you are lashed tightly to your mast, and my dulcet tones and mind’s eye images emanate from a league distant. The ropes and wax I bartered were in no way faulty. There can be no sound reason not to chat while your oarsman pick their way through my milieu with their painfully slow pulling at the paddles. They certainly hear no sound reason. Nor sound of any kind.”

“What power do you hold over us?”

“At this moment—none, I assure you. I cannot bid the sun rise from deepest night and stand straight overhead to melt the cerumen and have it flow forth from their earholes. Why should I wish you harm—or even inconvenience?”

Odysseus pondered this. “Is it not written in stone that your duty—all your mission—is to lure ships and sailors onto the rocks?”

“Perhaps it is written in Circe’s head. What need have we of boats and boatswains? Shall we with all abandon litter the coast of our own blessed flower fields? To what end? If we wish to mate with human males, dead seaman are unlikely to serve our purpose.”

“It is my understanding you prefer our flesh within your mouths.”

“Would that not be a pretty picture? You see my form in your mind. Is it not more than pleasing? Beautiful women possessed of silken wings plucking entrails with greedy distended mouths from the offal left in the wake of a crush of wood and canvas and copper. Is that a picture your sage mind allows?”

“Ah, there you have betrayed a purpose, Ligeia! Did not you or your kind lure Butes the Argonaut, who swam toward your shore till personally saved by Aphrodite? Your feasting is precisely the vision my mind conjures.”

“It is this mind that then betrays you. The legends of dear Butes’ salvation are nonsense. He did hear us above the lute of Orpheus, and he did jump into the sea to make his way to us. I would be a fool to deny our lure. You are feeling it this instant. But no goddess saved that Argonaut. He reached our shore and lived in bliss with one of my sisters for many years, fathering a dozen children.”

“But parts of you are birds!”

“Not any really good parts.”

Selene’s moon disappeared behind a cloud, and all singing went with it.

Ligeia continued, “I will allow I have a deep desire that you will sojourn a time with me. But I only wish your presence, and that only to know you better. Upon my soul I desire no harm to come to you nor to your sailors. They might unstuff their ears this moment to utter safety—and complete silence from me.”

“What of your sisters?”

Now there was a long pause. Finally she whispered, “I do not sing for them.”

“How many are you?”

“More than you think. More than Homer will limn in his sightless artistry. If I retired somewhere with you, their numbers would not miss me.”

“Their numbers? So now you are forced to truth?”

“I have never sang otherwise.”

“If I freed myself from this mast—as I am mightily attempting against my own self-interest—if I came to you, would I be soon destroyed?”

“Not so soon as you imagine,” she replied. “I would earnestly love you in my meadow. In my way. I earnestly love you now. But eventually, yes. There are nonetheless advantages, my beloved. In my land, you get a choice of what destroys you.”

“Let it be knowledge.”

“So it should be. You are a wise and fair creature, Odysseus.”

“As are you, Ligeia. In my mind’s eye I know this. I know this more clearly near these breakers than I have known before.”

“These breakers are my own. Unlike the sun and moon and open sea, they do bend to my will. When a vessel ventures this close, I have my way with it. At this instant, I could dash you board and rag and blood and bone upon the razor rocks. Or I could hold you in a kind of stasis here and interact with you forever. I like things exactly at this spot. Where we are both happy. Now move on, my champion.”

“Don’t you want more of this?”

Ligeia scoffed, “Nah, we wouldn’t be happy for long.” But a sadness melded with her nonchalance. The last vision the warrior had of her, a tear did escape the pool of her eye. She sighed. “I’ll always have that look you gave my image. I felt it. It wasn’t a long look—but it was real. Sail home to your Penelope, my traveler. And fervently pray the gods will be as entranced by you as I.”

John Kiste is a planetarian and Poe impersonator who has been published in A Shadow of Autumn, Modern Grimoire, Dark Fire Fiction, Theme of Absence, NonBinary Review‘s H. G. Wells anthology, and whose work was included in the Unnerving Press release, Haunted Are These Houses, and Camden Press’s anthology, Quoth the Raven.