Seireneion Melos (Siren Song) Siren song – it plays among the rocks
Hear it! Catch it! This is my song!
All in an Afternoon
by Denise A. Horner
Off in the distance. Off and on. Off and on. Twelve rings, in all. Noon.
Mr. Simpson was an old, old man with a singular habit. Always at 12 p.m. on Sundays, Mr. Simpson came out of his house for the purpose of ringing a fifty-pound bell, originally part of a Yankee navy ship, twelve times. Set up in an open hutch of wood on the sea-facing portion of his yard, it was a bell he had picked up from a marine scrap shop as long ago as 1910, he once told Nelson, when he was twenty and became owner of his first boat.
If the wind was right, even through the high dunes between Simpson’s place and his, the admiral could interpret the individual pings of its iron clapper striking the bell’s rough sides and tell time by it.
Competing with the heat electricity playing in the air and snapping in the grasses, the bell – unusually loud today – had a siren-like sound, calling out a man’s lonely edge. Like a number written down on a matchbook and forgotten, leading you into yourself, into your past.
It was good to hear. On any other day.
Counting the thudding pings on the wind, sitting there on the brow of the hill adjacent to his own house, Nelson ran a hand through his hair and smiled at the sea below. A vacant, slightly forlorn smile. Glowing, shimmering with an almost bell-like shimmer in the bright warm light of July, it had always been his comfort. The sea.
The bell and the sea. Both mesmerizing, like the sirens of old who sang seagoing men to their doom on the rocks, or played the lyre or the flute – a siren’s beauty, however expressed, reflected the powerful sea itself. Greek myth had three, sometimes five sirens. Ah, what were their names? Parthenope came to mind. From his copy of Homer, a rare 19th century translation, Nelson recollected the story of two other sirens, one named, one unnamed, and of Odysseus, the sailor who plugged up the ears of his men with ‘honey-sweet wax’ and tied himself to the mast as they passed the sirens’ isle, in so doing saving every man aboard. It was the sirens who had to jump into the sea and die.
He had read in another story of three siren sisters. One of the three was Raidne. Sitting up late as usual when he was home, something he tried not to do on the submarine Seaview, especially when at sea, Nelson had wondered at the time how to pronounce the name, settling after some deliberation on the straightforward Rad-ne. The other two sisters’ names were foggy. Hers was all he could remember.
Myth and legend were worth their weight in gold for him today. Meditating on the sirens, on Mr. Simpson’s never-failing bell, and on the sea itself took his mind off something infinitely more spellbinding. Inexpressibly more tragic.
Today, he had had bad news. An old friend of his, from a long way back, had been murdered in London. Knifed and robbed.
After fumbling for almost an hour with the airport phone listings, he had decided to call Angie on her day off – it was Sunday after all – and have her make the flight arrangements. Then he had to come out here, to the sea beyond his spacious home. Far, far from London in Santa Barbara, the admiral could only shake his head and wonder at life. How could it have happened? Ben Drayton had been the soul of goodness. Every man he came in contact with would have vouched for his kindness. He wasn’t the kind of man to give you the coat off his back. No, instead, he’d buy you a new one. Charities, both official and off the cuff, certainly knew his beneficence. Was it fair to give a man so much, and then wipe it out in so little time? As if the man, the goodness, had never been?
Now, due to some thug in the streets of a well-maintained city in a Christian country, he was dead. Sixty-two years of good and generous life snuffed out for a few bills in his wallet and a locket with his deceased wife’s picture in it.
Nelson stood up and dusted off his pants, still gazing out at the rolling surf and shining waves. Turning back, he walked up the steps of the terraced lawn and onto the travertined porch. Setting a deck chair right with a single twist of his hand, without even looking at it, he went on inside the French doors and into the relative coolness of his large, well-furnished living room.
Over at the bar, he made himself a bourbon and soda with ice. He sat drinking it on the pale couch, staring broodingly at the coffee table and wondering still how it could have happened. His phone rang. It was Angie calling back with his reservations.
"Thanks, Angie. Now, go enjoy the rest of your day."
He smiled into the phone and let his voice reflect it. He was glad knowing everything was taken care off. He’d pick up his tickets at the check-in desk and be on the flight an hour or so after that. What a dreary trip lay ahead of him! First, one airline to get him to New York and then another to rush him to London. Having his own jet might have been worth the expense, but he could never talk himself into it. He had bought a larger cabin cruiser a short time ago and that was enough conspicuous consumption for a while.
His flight to New York would not leave until that evening at 4 p.m. A five-hour journey would place him right at Kennedy Airport just in time for his eleven o’clock flight to Heathrow, though since it was not a through connection, he would have to hurry to the second airline’s passenger waiting area or he’d miss his flight. In any case, right now, he had a few hours to kill and what better way to do it than to go on board his new boat and speed recklessly over the waves?
Packing a light lunch and taking his short raincoat with him, Nelson checked out the boat before taking off from the dock. Everything in ship-shape order, he turned the key in the motor, started slowly and then increased his speed as he got past the family boating area. He never knew how fast he went. But he went fast. The boat could do what no other boat he’d ever owned could have done – and that was almost to make him forget himself. The blazing wind across the windshield slapped his face and threw into convulsions the flag on its flagpole at the back of the boat. He laughed as he turned around and saw it in its helplessness. He’d remember to take it down for the next trip.
Suddenly he heard a cry. Over the sound of the motor and the waves dashing against the fiberglass sides of the cruiser, he heard what sounded like a woman’s cry. It grew louder as he worked to pinpoint it. Not until he shut off the motor, though, did he succeed in pinning it down. It was coming from a rocky headland a few hundred yards away. He turned the motor on again and coasted in to a beach. Looking toward the rocks up on the shore, he tried to see who might have been making that cry.
It was the most haunting sound he’d ever heard. Slowly driving into the inlet near the rocks, he dropped one anchor to port and then the other to starboard. Because of the boulders on his starboard side, he hooked a long, lozenge-shaped styrofoam bumper on that side of the boat, to repel dents. Jumping out of the boat onto one of the big rocks, Nelson turned this way and that trying to locate the cry. He definitely heard it now. It was a sobbing sound, but a beautiful one. No one who heard it could have been unmoved.
Finally, he located it and walked purposefully towards a small cave in the battered cliff. He didn’t quite know where he was on the coast, but that didn’t matter. He had intended on getting himself lost for an hour or two, but also planned to turn around and go back well ahead of his flight time.
Ducking low, he looked into the cave and called out. "Hello!" The crying stopped for a second, then started up again, only more fiercely this time.
Going in, he found he could stand up after he had proceeded into the cave a short ways. The rocks underfoot gave him some trouble, but the light from the high, midday sun did manage to penetrate a good way in, so he could see most of them. With one hand on the dewy, moldy wall of the cave, he progressed along, following the cry. It was so plaintive, and lamenting, he thought it would melt every fiber of his being, starting with his heart.
Why was he doing this? How had he heard a cry over the boat motor and the waves out to sea, so far from the interior of this cave, where it seemed to be coming from?
Nelson didn’t know. He only knew there was a distress call in that cry, and he was responding the way nature had made him. He couldn’t have ignored the sound of the female’s cry for all the money in the world. Even if he had been promised an endless truckload of supplies for Seaview, and no more wrangling over grants with the Pentagon, private corporations and the Department of Defense, he would not have turned back and left the cave without tracking down that crying voice!
Then he saw her. Or rather thought he did. Sitting on a huge boulder, she was beautiful, dressed in a long gown with seaweed-like ribbons hanging from the neck and waist. Her hair was of the softest brown, like her eyes, and she had the most delicate face he could have imagined on the planet. Turning those melancholy eyes on him, she raised a hand and then lowered it, almost like a signal to come.
He walked forward.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, a suspicious note in his harsh, wind-roughened voice. "Did your boat break down? Are you from the hill up there?" He pointed to the ceiling, but meant the cliff above their heads.
She eyed him dolefully, without replying.
"Are you okay? I have a boat. I can get you home."
"I am home," she said, the words full of soft harmonies. Nelson almost shook with the delight of hearing them.
"Here, in the cave? Why? How can this be your home?"
"I am home," she said again.
He looked at her, wondering if perhaps she had escaped from somewhere. He suddenly tried to recall if there was a sanitarium or some such in these parts – then realized he wasn’t at all sure where he was.
"You’re crying," he said. "Again, why?"
"I am the only one left," she said.
Frankly, Nelson was glad to hear a few more words out of her than, "I am home." It made him feel as if he had not abandoned his own sanity out in the cold.
"My two sisters, Molpe and Teles, are gone and they’ve left me here. I called you."
"Called me? Like a mayday? How did you know I was in the area?"
"I called you."
She had started repeating again. Admiral Harriman Nelson, on leave just then from the daily turmoil aboard Seaview, sighed.
"The cave’s cold. Come on out and I’ll make sure you get a warm blanket and something hot to drink."
"I am left."
"Did you hear what I said?" Nelson took a step toward the girl, a child really of about twenty, and she recoiled slightly. Then she shook her loose, seaweed-colored hair and raised her chin. Her words came more firmly this time, as if she had made up her mind to trust him.
"I called you. You can come."
He shook his head. Never in his time aboard Seaview, the vast underwater nuclear sub, even in conflict with aliens, had he seen such a strange being. He walked closer to the naiad, and sat down on the rock beside her. He reached over and felt her arm. She was stone cold.
"You’re freezing. And wet. C’mon, I’m getting you back to civilization. Maybe on the way, you can tell me where to drop you off at. Where your home is."
"I am home."
She rose and followed him as he led her out of the cave, both ducking low at the entrance. He helped her to stand on the rock and then lowered her gently over the side of the boat. Ruing the scratches he could see on the side of his cruiser where a rock had abraded it in the surf, even with the bumper, he climbed in and opened the cabin door. Pulling the shivery girl inside, he made her sit down on the built-in sofa unit and after fetching a blanket from a closet, wrapped it tightly around her. She smiled slightly up at him for his efforts. He only shook his head again and went to fire up the motor. Slowly leaving the rocks, he increased his speed until he was racing over the waves again – only not so fast. He didn’t want to scare his passenger. She spoke not a word to him, but did take the drink he had offered her. Hot tea.
"How did you get out this far?" he asked her.
She only shook her head and sipped the tea.
"I guess we’ll get to all that when you warm up," he said. "Will your sisters be worried when they come back?"
She shook her head again and sipped from the mug.
"What’s your name?"
She looked up at him and was about to shake her head again, but stopped, and smiled.
"Your name?" he asked again, a little exasperated with the monologue-game he was being forced to play.
"Yours?" she asked, voicing her first word in almost half an hour.
"Nelson. Harry Nelson. I live about another hour from here. I’m flying out tonight, so we’d better get you settled as quickly as we can when we get to Santa Barbara."
"Nelson," she said, stroking the name with those harmonies. Eyes glistening, she played with the name over and over, gradually only whispering it.
The admiral felt strangely moved. He could feel himself responding to those harmonies in her voice as if to a dance. It was strange. He had never felt this way before with any other female. She made him almost overwhelmingly glad to be alive. And alive in a way he had never known before how to feel. There was a dirge-like melancholy in her voice. He could hear it and knew it had come from the sea. The sea – that’s where she belonged. He didn’t know where her sisters were, but he knew where she had come from. The sea.
Strangely, his sadness over his friend’s death, though it was truly still in his heart, did not weigh him down as much, while he listened to the beautiful naiad, as he called her.
He pulled the cruiser slowly up to the dock and left the cabin to cast a line on the piling. When he returned to the cabin, he wasn’t surprised to find only a blanket, still slightly damp, lying haphazardly on the built-in sofa, and on the varnished table, an overturned cup of tea. He grabbed a towel, wiped up the spilled tea from the table, and then went up the steps to his house in order to change for his flight.
Note: The names of the sirens in Greek myth are an exercise in tongue-twisting. I chose Raidne as the only one the admiral could remember because, except for Molpe and Teles, it was easiest name to pronounce!
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