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Prose

Sirens

8 June 2018

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The rocking chair swayed back and forth like water against the hull of a ship. Through the window, she could see that the night was still. In the valley below, the soft glow of the town stretched all the way to the shore.

  Lou’s hands clenched the wharf’s rotting timber railing. Before her, the world gave way to the sea. The smell of salt and foam washed over her. The town’s buildings were in varying stages of decay: the paint chipped and faded, the verandahs slanted.

Today, the harbour was crowded with bodies. Men carried supplies to and from small fishing vessels, talking loudly. But her gaze was settled on the third of the four docks, where a ship towered over them all.

The Fortune was built for speed. With ten guns, a narrow hull and three masts—she could outrun any slave ship or Spanish man-of-war.

Lou’s eyes scanned the disembarking men, searching for two familiar figures. Felix, the freckled farmer’s son from down the road. And another man, with short dirty-blond hair and the fitted black overcoat Mother had sewn years before.

A hand came to rest on the small of her back: Mother’s. “Have you spotted him?”

Lou shook her head. Her thoughts drifted to the stories he had told her, curled up on his lap as a child. Stories of pirates and privateers and all the places he’d seen. One day, she would’ve convinced him to take her aboard.

A man limped down the wharf. His walk was more laboured than it had been the last time the ship had docked. Felix.

He didn’t return her smile as he stopped in front of them. A question formed on her lips but she saw the apology in his eyes even before he tipped his head and muttered, “I’m sorry.”

The front door closed softly behind her. Dry grass crackled underneath her bare feet as she made her way along the winding paths towards the town’s heart. Within minutes, she heard the sound of scratchy music and drunken shrieks from the balconies. She continued on.

  The rowboat rocked gently against the rhythm of the water. Lou sat opposite Felix, a few hundred metres from shore. The harbour could be seen far off to the right.

Felix lounged back, his arms crossed behind his head. Under the sun, his hair looked more red than brown, and his freckles stood out against the paleness of his thin face. A handsome face, she had realised in recent years, still thankfully unmarred despite his line of work.

They had sat in the same boat as children, back when she followed him around town, much to his initial annoyance and embarrassment.

He would be twenty soon; she seventeen.

Her gaze focused on the delicate dip of his collarbones at the base of his throat. She looked away.

When Felix arrived at her house this morning to pick up the clothes Mother had sewn his family, she had walked him out. “I need to get out of here,” she told him.

The silence of home was maddening. Each day, Mother sat stoically at her workbench, mending and creating. And, each day, it was becoming harder for Lou to hold her tongue. Felix had nodded, telling her to meet him at the beach.

“When do you leave again?” she asked him.

“Two weeks. I think we’re headed to the Caribbean.”

To intercept Spanish ships in the name of the Queen. The life of a privateer—somewhere between a pirate and a sailor. They fell silent.

Lou draped one arm over the side of the boat, her fingers skimming the surface of the water. “Do you know what happened to him after he left?” she asked.

Felix stilled. She felt his eyes on her face as she moved her gaze to the coastline. “No.”

“I do.” She felt her mind reel. What was the woman’s hair colour? Black like Mother’s? A wild brown like her own? She tried to dismiss the painful thoughts each time they arose, finding it easier to imagine pirates slitting his throat, or slave-owners capturing him off the Mediterranean coast.

“Sirens,” she found herself saying instead.

Sirens.

She turned to face him, took in his cautious expression. “You don’t believe in them?” she asked, cocking a brow. “Do you?”

Her mouth twisted into a sad smile.

“Lou…” She detested the pity that coated his voice.

Felix opened his mouth to say more but she stood abruptly, the boat swaying then jerking violently as she jumped overboard. Millions of tiny bubbles rushed to the surface, and she savoured the fleeting feeling of them against her skin.

Sometime later, she found herself slipping down the sand banks of the beach; feeling almost drunk on tiredness. She staggered closer to the water, and the damp sand cradled her knees when she fell. She stayed there, waiting for the song that called her to the shore most nights.

 
    Each morning, Lou delivered the clothes Mother had sewn. She fetched fabrics from the market place. She ripped weeds from the gardens and sprinkled seeds like raindrops as the chickens swarmed. Then, when it was time to eat, she would collect the axe from where it rested against the side of the house, feel the unsympathetic weight as she brought it down in an arc on a chicken’s neck.

Some days, she found herself staring in the direction of the harbour, looking at the sails that were as full as storm clouds. Looking for the lost man. She’d turn the axe on him if he ever returned.

Silence.

She climbed to her feet, not noticing the sand clinging to her skin. Her eyes scanned the dark, struggling to make out the shapes of the breaking waves. She stepped closer.

  The day before Felix was set to depart, she walked along the dirt path to his house. Wheat fields swayed either side of her.

She found him sitting on a bench on the porch, his feet stretched out, head tipped back. Felix never simply sat: he lounged, unafraid of commanding space. He smiled wide and bright when she climbed the two steps. “Ah, I was wondering when you’d come see me off.”

She sat beside him. “Are you excited?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Somewhat. Never been to the Caribbean before.”

She’d never been further than the town’s border.

“Will you miss me?” he asked jokingly.

“Not if I come with you.”

He laughed, but when her expression remained serious, his mirth died. “We’ve been over this.” “Felix—”

“It’s too dangerous for you.”

Her gaze travelled over his clothes: the trousers and loose cotton identical to her own. “Why is it always only too dangerous for me, not you?”

He remained silent.

Lou rose to her feet, pinning him with a disgusted look. Then she was jogging down the steps, across the lawn.

She heard his uneven steps follow her and felt his hand fall on her shoulder. “Wait.”

“For what?” she exclaimed as she turned to face him. “I’m done with waiting at home for you and him to return.”

Felix’s large hands rose and gently cupped her face. “Do you know what happens to women on ships, Lou?” he asked softly. A thumb glided over her cheek and he studied her face as though imagining what it would look like swollen and bloodied. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

She felt his sincerity, but it could not soothe her. She stepped back and his arms fell to his sides. She turned away, yelling over her shoulder, “Safe travels.”

The run home was a blur on uneven dirt roads, burning calves and watery eyes. Her breasts moved against her chest; she hated them. She would rid herself of them if she could and don the skin of a man like Felix. Then she’d take a ship to the edge of the horizon or hunt down the lost man to demand why their family hadn’t been enough.

The front door slammed behind her. Mother jolted from her sewing station.

Lou stood in the living room, shaking, panting. Her eyes focused on the ruby fabric and needle in Mother’s hand. Would that be Lou in a few years? She wouldn’t let it come to that.

“What’s the matter?” Mother asked.

Had she ever wanted to take to the sea with him? Had she ever wanted more? For as long as Lou could recall, Mother had been where she always was, doing what she always did.

“He didn’t love us anymore, did he?” she asked quietly. In his absences he had become a stranger, but Lou would rather him dead than with another family.

Mother placed the materials on the table, sighing softly before she faced Lou. “No, I don’t think he did.”

Foaming water washed over her feet, rising up her calves. Sand shifted underneath her, sucking her further out, until the loose fabric of her shirt floated around her waist. The safety of shore became an abandoned memory.

 
    She could make out the fading shape of The Fortune as it made for the horizon, its sails full.

She turned away.

The waves broke against her chest and saltwater flooded her mouth. Her head turned this way and that, searching for that voice that pulled her from sleep. But there was just her, the sea and an empty bay.

   

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