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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Frederick

Anthemusa

Part I:


Their ship wasn't meant for oars, but they brought them above deck anyway. They tied the sails down, securing them with ropes to the yard above. Nautes fumbled with the ropes, the knot he was supposed to be tying became clumsy. The older men, those who had made this journey before, didn't comment. In another part of the ocean, they would have shoved his shoulder with wide smiles and teased him for his inexperience. Here, they were solemn and focused. Their movements were tinged with a hurriedness instilled by fear.  

They floated past a large rock, the landmark, just as they finished tying off the sails and preparing the oars. The captain yelled for them to put the wax in their ears. Around them, the wind died. Nautes stuck the wax, warm from his pocket, into his ears. Shoving it in so far, he was half worried he wouldn't be able to get it out completely. Still, he'd rather not be compelled to throw himself overboard. The captain, with his own honey-colored wax, checked the entire crew’s ears before they began rowing. 

Nautes had been allowed to simply watch during his first time passing Anthemusa. The closer they got to the island, the calmer the water got. The only current was initiated by their boat pushing itself through the sea. 

Nautes made his way to the side of the ship. The Sirens' song hadn't even begun, but he already felt the need to approach the island. He gripped the wooden railing as the island came into focus. A plateau in the middle of the sea. The tall, steely cliffs were so high they dominated his understanding of the island. Though rumor had it that above the cliffs was a meadow. In that meadow was a pile of corpses with flesh still hanging off their bones. The island might have been beautiful if not for that horrific image.

His Egyptian mother, when hearing of the risks, had invoked the ba-bird. Part of the soul with the human’s head on the body of a hawk. He hadn't understood the connection until his mother had made him promise to do whatever it took to avoid becoming a Siren. Perhaps thinking that the Sirens were corrupted ba-birds who couldn't travel between the realms of the living and the dead, his mother worried they inflicted that on other bau, souls. His mother had misunderstood the Sirens, probably, but she had rightfully assumed they would bring death. Transform him into his own ba-bird. He had taken her talismans, the ankh and wedjat made of blue stone. She had tried to give him more. Except when his father had noticed the talismans were ones primarily placed on dead bodies, he'd stopped her by saying their son was not yet dead. It had been a sobering night, but the next morning his mother had been calmer.

Perhaps his father had told her of Odysseus’ crew, who had put wax in their ears to block out the Sirens' devastating song. He must have told her that sailors regularly used this method to protect themselves. Perhaps a tried routine to cheat death had assured her. He still wore the talismans. Before leaving, Nautes had prayed for safety with his father to the goddess Demeter, who had punished the Sirens.

As they got closer to the island, an unavoidable risk due to the rocky waters, Nautes began believing that the talismans and prayers had worked. There was no sign of the Sirens. No shadows crossed the boat, no song filtered through the haze of the wax, no one threw themselves overboard. 

They were so close to the island, Nautes could have swum to the cliffs in minutes. The crew held their breaths, even as they exerted themselves to row faster. The men kept their heads down. Nautes looked up.  


Standing on the cliff's edge was a girl with large wings sprouting from her back. A Siren. Her wings, golden at first glance, appeared to be rotting. Shining plumage gave way to sparse patches of withered, gray feathers. The wings’ anatomy was nearly hand-like, a poor copy of a hawk’s wing. He touched his talismans. This far below, he could only make out the vague impression of her face, her expression more than her features. She tracked them. 

Rocking with the boat, he sensed a deep melancholy emanating from her. An apathy that stung and pierced the soul. Where passion and ambition should have been, a hole sucked everything else from his heart. For a second, he feared the wax did not work. That her song was pulling his soul from him, lapping away at it like the tides that had disappeared from the island. His panic dissipated when he registered the sight of her mouth. Her closed mouth. 

She was not singing. She was not even trying. Alone on the cliff face, she stood silently.

It was said that the Sirens’ knowledge – details of the battles no one lived to recount, letters of texts lost to time, desires the kings and heroes never expressed – granted them great power. But as she watched him, silent and impassive, he could not help feeling they were ungenerous to the Sirens. She had not been freed by prophetic knowledge. Her cold eyes, watching the latest but not the last boat to pass her island, seemed far away. Trapped out of time. Held purposeless in this moment, knowing her power had dissolved. Sailors rowed by her island with wax in their ears, and she watched them with a closed mouth. 

Nautes thought of his mother and father. Of his ambitions and future. He could sail to wherever he wanted, he could forge himself a purpose. Despite the song that made men throw themselves into the sea, he felt sympathy for the Siren. As she rustled her decaying wings, he wondered if she knew how trapped she was. He thought she did. 



Part II:


Peisinoe sat on her pile. Her remaining sisters found it revolting, thought it disfigured a lovely meadow. But the corpses energized her. In a world of constant disrespect, only this pile of their victims brought her a sense of power. 

Magic around the pile of corpses kept the air clean and flowery. Peisinoe didn't know how it had happened, only that when she'd begun pulling the sailors from the water, their corpses never smelled. They rotted and decomposed without the help of maggots or vultures. Their bones naturally shone like polished ivory. Peisinoe took it as a sign. The corpses were her divinely ordained compensation. When she didn't have the satisfaction of watching boats and bodies crash upon their cliffs, she had her pile.  

It hadn't always been like this. Before the monotony, before the dead sailors, they had accompanied the goddess of springtime. The lovely, young Persephone who had woven them crowns of leaves and picked flowers to fill their pockets. They'd sat together by crystalline streams, dipping their toes into the sweet water. They'd danced with beautiful nymphs, who laughed like birds. Ligeia and Leucosia had been bright then, following the footsteps of their mother, the Muse of Dance. Thelxinoe had written happy stories, full of beautiful sister-maidens like themselves. Raidne and Aglanoe had learned to braid hair under Persephone's enthusiastic instruction. 

Then. She remembered it with bitterness, though Thelxinoe insisted it hadn't felt that way at the time. Her levelheaded sister described the warm breeze against their faces, the wind in their golden feathers. Flying above the rolling meadows they'd danced through and the streams they'd bathed in. Peisinoe remembered the wings forming from the bones in her back, growing unnaturally until they pushed through the once beautiful skin, and the sound as they cracked into place. Raidne, still so impossibly young as to have not bled yet, clawing at the ground and screaming as her body tore itself apart. 

Demeter had given them their golden wings to find her daughter, their beloved friend. They'd searched, flying across the world twice over. They'd searched, but they'd failed. Then Persephone revealed herself to be underground, enjoying her new power as Queen of the Underworld. Demeter had lashed out. Banished them. Raidne, too forgiving, never spoke against Demeter. She was delusional. She forgot no one loved them. 


Tracing the half-dissolved cartilage of a corpse's nose, Peisinoe considered its beauty. The exposed bone, white despite the grime on the skin centimeters away, was more precious than a pearl. The withering flesh that had once been strong thighs, the callouses that had fallen from hands, the hair that was stringy and thin no matter how well it had been cared for in life. Death restored everyone to their simplest form. Her sisters thought they didn’t understand, but even their own once golden wings now dropped patchy feathers from graying flesh. When the world came crashing down, they – like all people – had looked for simplicity. They sang men into the sea and relished the power. Stopping the sailors who could go anywhere and mingle with whoever; Peisinoe knew the retribution fed her sisters too. Their voices, so beautiful and full of promise, had created a reliable outcome. For a while, it had kept them healthy, stalled the decay.

Peisinoe had started collecting corpses after the contest against the Muses. Hera, a cruel goddess in shining satin, had whisked them from their island. At the base of Olympus, they were thrust into a competition against their mothers. Though, for all the welcome they'd received, none could have guessed the relations. Afterwards, Raidne had asked if Calliope was really her mother. 

This was the first time Peisinoe had seen her mother since her transformation. Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, had her sword on her hip and tragedy mask in her hand. Staring at her face, Peisinoe had seen layers of twisted grief and dread beyond the passive expression. Hope had surfaced in the moment before she realized those feelings weren't directed towards the Sirens, nor were they feelings at all. Melpomene held her mask because she didn’t need it, her purpose had melded into her being. Peisinoe's rotting wings twitched uncomfortably whenever she recalled this. 

The Sirens had sung to the Muses. All their pain regarding their abandonment and isolation poured into a melody unlike anything the Greeks had ever heard. The song had carried a depression throughout the land until their old mistress had returned with springtime. Even Hera had wept quietly behind her hands. 

The Muses had been unimpressed, and when they sang, the Sirens understood why. The Muses plucked melodies from Achelous’ river, from the breezes graced by Hermes, from the flowers bloomed by Persephone. It had been beautiful. Until it wasn't. The Muses were so proud. They had strummed their lyres with sticky superiority. Their coy smiles were so small they had easily slid into their masks of concentration. They were better, and they knew it. Suddenly, the perfection became ugly; beauty drowned in their egregious pride and disregard.

When Hera had declared the Muses the winners, they had the audacity to act surprised. Humble in their graceful thanks and generous in their bashful bows. The act would have been perfect too, if obnoxious, had their eyes not flashed in cruel triumph every time they had looked at their daughters. 

From that day on, Peisinoe considered herself the daughter of that evil and ugly musicality. The rage remained, but the mystery disappeared. She understood why the Muses had abandoned them. They couldn't live up to their mothers' legacy, and if they did, that would be even worse. Their pride wouldn't allow for either option. The Sirens returned to their island with a new understanding, and a new resentment. Their songs were meant to kill.

Then things went wrong. It had started with Orpheus, who drowned them out like the Muses had. Must be a family trait, Peisinoe had remarked bitterly. She’d regretted the comment when Raidne had asked how he was family. Thelxinoe had had to tell her that he was Calliope's son, Raidne's half-brother. 

Then there was Odysseus, who truly brought their world down. The cunning man had been the first to defeat them without magic, and worst, he had made sure he wouldn’t be the last. Their wings had started to rot as soon as he was out of range. Ligeia and Leucosia had plunged into the sea hours later. 

Aglanoe had left soon after. The corpse pile had gotten too big, she'd claimed. She’d flown across the sea, out of sight, patchy wings barely able to support her. She was going to ask for a place in the household of their Muse mothers. As another daughter of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, Peisinoe doubted that had gone well.  

Once, Peisinoe had preached that the sisters could only rely on each other. Their mistress had abandoned them, her mother had betrayed them. Their own mothers had fought and refused to support them. They could only rely on each other, as sisters who had never been anything but committed. Now, Peisinoe knew even that was a falsehood. She couldn't blame her sisters. Despite all the knowledge their shrieking song promised, the Sirens had never listened to themselves. It was either plunge into the sea, or sit on a pile of corpses making crowns of bone.  



Part III:


Raidne stood on one of the island's many cliffs. By now, the callouses on her feet prevented her from bleeding on the sharp rocks, but the old bloodstains were still visible. She used to leave crimson footprints in their grassy meadow. Maybe she understood why Peisinoe had started collecting corpses; spilling blood had sustained them for a while. 


Her eyes, sharper since her childhood, tracked the ship. It made fast progress through the glass water. The boat moved rhythmically, pulling itself forward then rocking back as the sailors brought their oars around. The crew kept their heads down. Even with wax and oars, they wouldn't acknowledge her. Except one young man, on the bow, who stared up at her. His eyes sparkled, a deep brown that matched the hull’s wood. Around his neck, amulets glinted in the sun. The symbols carved from blue stone were unfamiliar, given to him by a loving hand. She swayed. Her body couldn’t decide if she wanted to dive after the young man or hide from him. 

His people understood the magic that stopped boats. Understood their song that brought men to the edge. They had prepared for every peril they could offer, and would rule the world because of it. Why sing to them when they had wax in their ears? Her sisters would no longer humiliate themselves. Raidne had no energy left to try. Should she plunge into the sea, following her sisters? Perhaps that was the only thing left for their song to accomplish. 

When Demeter had lost her daughter, the fear in her eyes had come from the ground. Her golden dress of stalky fibers had whipped around her as she screamed. The earth had shaken and turned itself over. Crops had died, crushed under tidal waves of soil or withered in drained fields. Even King Hades must have felt his kingdom shake from Demeter's rage. 

When Raidne lost her sisters, she felt the same earthly fury. The seas had battered their island for the first and last time. The clouds had coalesced into an impenetrable darkness. Beyond time and space, they were one with Demeter in their loss. Daughters lost mothers. Mothers lost daughters. Sisters lost sisters.  

Her sisters were lost yesterday, and years ago, and months from now. Ligeia and Leucosia plummet into the sea instead of dancing in springtime. Aglanoe flies away to live with her unaffected mother. Peisinoe is being consumed by her rage on a pile of bones. Raidne herself, is lost to time that swallows her now and then and later. 

Only Thelxinoe spent time with her anymore, even though Raidne’s distant mind couldn't have been much comfort. As a Daughter of Tragedy, perhaps Thelxinoe was better equipped to deal with their lives. Raidne was too consumed. Her mind, her eyes. Every ship she saw, she couldn't tell if it was one she had seen, was seeing, or would see. 

She tried to ground herself as Thelxinoe advised. Feel the rocks beneath her feet, the sun on her aching wings, the air in her lungs. The ship passed below. Through the haze, through the eerie tug of something that pushed her away and drew her near, she returned to the young man. His expression was strange to her. His eyebrows were furrowed; he wasn't angry. His parted mouth wasn't curled up in fear. Was that awe? Was that the compassion Peisinoe criticized her for? 

She watched him watch her. The Siren and the sailor. Enemies. Passive observers. When the sun set on her island today, yesterday, tomorrow, she would describe his dark hair and sun-varnished skin. Thelxinoe would write it down in a book Raidne would never be present enough to read. As she rested her head on her pallet, Thelxinoe would recite her descriptions while she fell asleep. Peisinoe would come into their cave, stinking of flowers. Yesterday, maybe tomorrow or today, Raidne didn't know what she would remember. Perhaps she'd see the sailor again.


 


Isabella Frederick is an emerging writer from Seattle, Washington. She has been writing stories for her family from a young age and has always wanted to be an author. She is currently studying creative writing at Seattle University. She loves writing sci-fi and fantasy, especially when she can use those genres to explore issues in the real world.


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