Sirene Pt.1.

Tension flowed tight wires up Alex’s shoulders, white-knuckled her hands on the wheel. It hunched her body to echo her eyes. Blinking against red-rim grit, she reacted instinctively to road signs, the occasional flare of headlights, which sent skirling gold patterns over her face and did nothing to pierce the haze of the woods.

Rain streamed silver trails down the windscreen. She tried not to focus on them too long; she’d start seeing one event of her life connected to the next, on that downward slide from a shining apex. The thought curled her mouth to a tight band.

She was getting damn maudlin. She never used to read into things like this. Death, that great leveller, had a habit of making a person see things double. She remembered when her old trainer told her about the time he’d lost a kid to the water; how the boy had forced himself into the pool night and day, forgetting that to grow stronger was to eat, to sleep and breathe real air.
He’d had a heart attack at the shallow end of life. Greg, her trainer, had found him floating in the pool’s deceptive blue haze, on a glorious summer morning like no other.

He had this smile on his face, the older man had mumbled, brushing a hand over his own weather-chopped cheek. The eye above glinted. Like he knew what was coming, and embraced it. Swam towards it. They say serotonin is our internal happy-pill, the pain-blocker that allows a dancer to smile despite her broken feet. Well, I say he OD’d on it. He let that pain flow through him on a constant cycle, like – like …

Like stale water sucking in the drains?” The words fell out of her mouth now, on a sigh. Watching the morning unfold before her in staggered slides of green and grey, Alex shook her head. She knew all about those drains, about the pain of staying on land too long. This morning marked her first return to the water in months. Too soon in the eyes of others, but late enough in her own.

Greg’s voice curled about her ears, heavy with regret; the heart-shadows of a teacher who had failed in his mission. She’d called him out on that. You don’t feel as though you taught him enough to survive training?
He’d stared her down.
No, Sirene. He only used her pet name from their younger days, when he wanted her to feel his words. I failed as a man. I didn’t teach him how to live outside the water.

Alex shivered. Pale light slid its fingers through her window, caressing her skin with the indifferent promise of dawn. Whatever happened, however she felt, the world went on. It was comforting in one way, chilling in another. She wanted to find a steady medium. Every part of her ached with some kind of reasoning, some chance of turning back, of talking, of setting things right. Of waiting a little longer. Too bad that her skin, her bones, were burning up with sleepless thoughts. Too bad that her soul ached to be weightless.

She had climbed quietly from the bed, a lean shadow sketched on the bedroom wall that was robin’s egg blue with first light. She’d paused for a breath-space, afraid her absence went marked; the stirring under the covers was fitful. Staring at the sleepy cocoon under the duvet, her heart had tightened. Sam always slept with the covers bunched between his bony knees. He was always apologetic in the morning, curling himself around her, smoothing down the bunched gooseflesh of her arms with his hands.

A shudder creased through her, dark with memories of amber evenings and wine. The brocade of lights along the river. Dining on the terrace, while his hand would keep creeping across the cloth to nudge hers. He’d catch her eyes and wink.
Alex bit her lip. She couldn’t think of those hands. How many times she’d feigned anger at his unseemly disruption of their formal state, their culture-wank as he put it. He hated anything showy, anything that seemed set apart from its emotional tethers.
Why shouldn’t I cross the rope to stand before my favourite painting? He’d roll his eyes and huff his shoulders up, throwing a swimmer’s triangle shadow across the art gallery floor. The security guard would dip his head and lower his lids at them, mouth pleating.

Alex was always reduced to giggles around Sam. He couldn’t resist tickling her, even while he made her skin spark with sweat. He knew how to use his hands, all right. He was the only man – only rival – to keep pace with her in the water. He always told her that this was the reason he’d waited so long to catch her.
Just checking you didn’t get a second wind, darling.

She’d thought he would rouse completely this morning, as she glided around their room full of shared life. The covers were clutched at, pulled high to shroud his head. Drowsy mutters filled the shallow dark. Watching him, her heart made a hangnail. She knew Sam slept his deepest in the low morning air, those deep hours between full dawn and lingering night. Leaning over the bed, she’d carefully swung the window open further. The curtains had billowed soundless ghost wings about her. For a moment, she’d seen his forehead wrinkle, known the pale flicker of his eyes above the covers. But he was already falling back asleep. Watching him, frozen in place, Alex had reached out a hand to hover above the tangled mass of dark hair on the pillow.
How many times she’d yanked fingers through it, pulled his mouth to hers. It’d made him laugh, that first frantic time.
The ice maiden can be melted, after all.

She’d almost slapped him. Their noses had trembled inches apart. His grin was a dark thing that carved open her chest. She’d told him, in staccato dead notes, how that name had preyed on her all through school. She’d felt again the sticky fingers of her peers, tugging her snow-pale hair as she walked under their classroom window with the hunched shoulders of an early growth spurt.
Sam’s eyes had narrowed. She’d seen something stir beneath the green, something that had drawn her to him in the first place. Something feral, relentless in its defence of her – under all the bullshit and banter, the flirting without strings.

He’d cleared his throat. Said the words she’d never expected to hear.

Her fingers had grabbed for his hair, urgent in discovery of fire, in purging of memory. She’d bitten his lip on the gestalt, tasted his blood and found it hot as her own. The surprise to end all surprises. She who had never felt a regular pulse, whose fingers often turned purple in the water. She hadn’t felt her toes since childhood. Nothing resonated through her, like his kiss had. When he’d thrown her into the pool, diving in after with that infamous otter-silence, she’d felt the water sear her skin for the first time. It had only ever accepted her presence before. He made her feel static and alive at once, sinking beneath the surface, ready to drown. Their dark forms had eeled around each other. She’d kicked him in the leg. When he’d wrapped his arms around her, brought her up to the surface to charge the light with silvery drops, she’d tasted the air as something new.

This morning, almost a year on, she’d crept from the room with lips tightly closed, as much to stop her heart leaping out as any sound escaping. On shivery feet, she’d moved around the unlit house, a strange peace wrapping itself around her, fresh-laundry comforting. Her vision had portholed as she’d moved to pack the required items. The paper had rustled lightly when she laid it flat on the kitchen table, the scratching pen louder than her breathing. A single line, a simple explanation. Wasn’t the way of things? An Occam’s razor for every contrivance in the world.

Slipping out the back door, Alex had kept one hand pressed to the wood panels while the other carefully, soundlessly pulled shut. Gravel chinked under her hasty slip-ons. Silly footwear for this time of year, and she’d felt the chill nip of early autumn tugging her toes, even as its breath fogged her hair like the damp spider webs, strung across the path.

Now, as the thump-thump of the wipers sent the whispering drizzle in little skirls, she felt cocooned. A prelude for what was to come, and the thought brought a small smile. The road ahead shone as leather, lined either side with dense woodland full of mist and soft darkness, waiting for the sun to paint in more detail. Alex drove in the wavering suspension between night and morning, where insomnia dies.

*

As a child, bath-time had come with its own deep sense of wonder. Alex’s large brown eyes would widen as she watched the water steaming into the tub, wriggling to clamber in before her mother had even tested the temperature. No bubble-bath, no soap – at least, not until she’d ducked her head, to see clearly and open her mouth like a fish. Scooting about in this small ocean, she would watch her hair fan out around her, until panicked hands pulled the slippery little body back up into the air and light. Giggling, she would wave her arms at their open mouths and fear-dark eyes. She had no fear at all; she would pinch her nose to stop the water going up (that hurt) and open her eyes wide, to see the strangely silvered world where air lived in pockets escaping from her mouth.

Aged six, when other girls dreamed of hair salon-lives and gleaming pink castles, Alex wanted nothing more than to be a mermaid. Her mother blamed the Disney film, which was played incessantly until it almost melted the VCR. When one morning she’d tried to carefully explain that humans couldn’t grow tails or gills, Alex had locked herself in the bathroom. Sliding the bolt across with quick fingers, she’d scrambled into the enamel tub and sat with little arms folded, sniffles escaping above her pouting mouth.

She’d ignored her mother’s turn-by-turn cajoling and threats. To prove how serious her point was, she’d even turned on all the taps, letting the water flow in clear rivulets down the sink and bath. But she’d left the plugs out. She didn’t feel that brave.

By early afternoon, her father had been called home early from work by a wife almost out of her mind with panic; hearing the swishing water, she’d feared the worst. Not even his deeper sternness booming through the door had ended Alex’s barricade. At his wit’s end by dinnertime, he’d pulled out the trump card – the only one he had left to play, since the child didn’t appear to be backing down, despite missing two meals and a whole afternoon of TV. He really wanted to avoid calling out the fire brigade for something like this; how the Hell would they explain themselves, as parents?

“If you’ll open the door, Alex,” he’d called through the keyhole, voice taut with nerves, “I’ll take you to the club tomorrow. The one Daddy uses, when he goes swimming. We’ll try you out in the pool – you can have a proper swim. Alex?”

Only quiet flowed from the bathroom. He’d been all set to shoulder-charge the damn door himself. But on the other side, Alex sat quite still in the tub, letting her fingers drift through the water as she thought. She’d seen the girls’ swim-team at the local health club, when her mother took her along to surprise Daddy. Excitement had gnawed her stomach, as she watched them cutting up and down the lanes like multi-coloured darts, their capped heads bobbing just above the water. They hadn’t looked much older than she was.

That clinched it. Just as her father took a deep breath and backed up, Alex scrambled slip-skidding from the bath to unlock the door. Arms enfolded her, and even the strangely tight hugs, the shiny eyes of her parents seemed worth her coldly clinging clothes and suddenly-ravenous stomach. Alex lay in bed a short while later full of baked beans and toast, with that weird squiggly feeling that came before a hiccup. Grinning at the ceiling, where long silver-green tails and glowing eyes flickered, she’d finally fallen asleep. Downstairs, her parents nursed deep glasses of brandy.

The next day saw a bright Saturday lull itself in, gold and creamy light, with no work or school to rise for. This, of course, never deterred Alex. She’d bounced into her parent’s room trailing towels and plastic swim-bags. Looming over them until they opened their eyes, she’d waited impatiently as they went through the usual boring routines of face-washing, bed-making, teeth-cleaning. Down in the kitchen, her mother pointed out that Alex hadn’t yet eaten breakfast; she’d grabbed two slices of bread from a loaf and stuffed them straight in her mouth.

With her father watching from a poolside bench, Alex had stepped out onto the apricot tiles, her mother gripping her hand. The little girl wore a new swimsuit bought at the club’s reception; a beautiful turquoise creation, her second skin, with its dusting of silver sequins the scales that would make her flicker underwater. Her pale hair bobbed in a ponytail.

Her dark eyes went wide as they took in the twenty-foot oblong of crystalline water. Their home bath, with its golden taps and safe white sides, seemed suddenly very small and boring. On this water, countless stars flickered from the overhead spotlights. The decking tiles glowed warmly.

Peeling her fingers from her mother’s – who let go reluctantly, but still knew well enough to step back – Alex had crept to the pool’s edge, watching the small tongues of water sucking in and out of the drains. She wasn’t too sure about that part. Dipping one toe in, holding her breath, she’d felt suddenly afraid to disturb the vast shining stillness. But the water was cool, catching and tugging at her toe, inviting her in. She didn’t need asking twice. Taking a deep breath, pinching her nose, Alex hurled herself to the pool in a perfect cannonball.

Once her parents had recovered from seeing their small daughter vanish in a sluice of water – hauling her out, swaddling her in a towel while kissing and shaking by turns – they’d allowed her back in. This time, her mother held a firm hand to her back as Alex sculled about, giggling at the ripples bobbing away from her.

But it wasn’t long before the girl had got her head underwater. Picking her feet from the shallow end of the pool, where her mother insisted she stay, she’d gone wriggling about below the surface like an eel. She showed no fear, as other children would, of the darkness and lack of air. Tugging free from her mother, Alex skimmed around her in little ducking circles, pulling neatly through the water. Her mother had turned wide eyes to her husband, hunched forward on the bench.

Setting her sights farther, Alex had struck out for the far side, where the water deepened from aqua to indigo. Paddle-splashing away, she’d kept her chin up, as she’d seen the swim-team do. Sometimes the water got down her nose, but she’d chuff it right out again; she knew to keep her eyes clamped shut against the burning. She was blissfully unaware of her parents’ gawking, unsure as they were about applauding for fear of startling her.

She might have been the only person in the world. The water was a cool silk sheet unfolding about her, eclipsing sound and sight. She knew then that she would become a swimmer, like the team-girls, like the swimmers who made it on TV, with their funny rubber caps and fly-eye goggles. But she’d be the fastest of them all, and the most beautiful, because she was Alex. And if she stayed in the water long enough, perhaps she might turn into a mermaid after all.

From then on, Alex would wait all week for her time in the pool, for the peace that came with floating beneath the surface of the world, hearing only her muffled heartbeat or occasional plinks of droplets falling from the leaves of potted ferns. Her parents took to watching from the overhead gallery, somehow sharing the unspoken truth that she was in no danger. Other swimmers would wait their turns, putting off their own exercise in favour of watching this strangely skilled little girl. They stood beside her parents, murmuring quietly among themselves while watching the small dart cut up and down the water.

But only her parents heard the praise. Once her practice lengths were finished – and with each week, these would increase in number and decrease in time – Alex preferred to lie back, to watch her silver-blonde hair billow about while the water clogged her ears to silence. Her skin glowed faintly green, and with half-closed eyes peering down at herself, she could almost see the flickering scales of a tail.

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1 Comment

  1. Sirene Pt.1. | Jessica P. West said,

    […] Sirene Pt.1.. […]

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