This week, The Larkin Lair is going to present you with a special treat*. Every day, leading up to this day, I put up a post discussing the things that most inspired me as I began writing my series, Lorelei, Once.
Day 1: Sirens
Day 2: The Forest
Day 3+4: Mythology and the Real World
Day 5: Music
And now, at last, I offer you the first chapter of SIREN. Enjoy!
CHAPTER 1: THE ENDING
The man on the shore seemed to realize that mine was the last face he would ever see. For an hour, he savored the sight of me, his booted feet pressing down into the mud. The wind blew through the trees all around us, and clouds disrupted the light of the sun overhead, but his gaze never left mine. As our eyes were tethered, I did not move, except where the water tugged at my hair and caused me to drift. I feared that, if I looked away, he would realize where he was and retreat into the woods, freed from my silent call, never to be seen again.
He had come from the depths of the forest as all humans do—without fanfare, without direction. Unlike most humans, however, he did not seem lost. He came directly for the pond which housed my siblings and me, and he peered through the surface as if searching for something. His gaze stopped roving once he saw me.
My brothers and sisters scattered all around, playing the usual game—hands out, lips parted, tittering softly and calling for the man to join us in our swim. But his eyes were mine—and, perhaps only because I had been singled out, I found myself strangely somber. With most of the humans that found their way to our pond, I could tease and cajole with my siblings. But with this man, I did not smile. I did not blink. I met his intense, uninhibited gaze, and I invited him in with silence.
The forest sighed, tousling the man’s hair and stirring the blue lilies that crowded the pond’s surface. The water shifted a little, just enough to take me an inch farther away. The man on the shore followed, shuffling his feet with great care, as if he could tread across the top of the pond and pluck me out into the air. The concentration in his eyes was such that, for a moment, I imagined he would.
My siblings became more excited as the man’s feet switched places again, each step sending ripples out towards us. Only now did I move, parting my arms and offering him a small, welcoming smile. He stilled, his eyes flickering across my features. Then he took three steps closer.
The water was up past his thighs, now. He paused, his hands coming to rest against his belt. This was unsurprising; some chose to undress before their final swim. But he settled for removing his tools and tossing them to the side, back to the shore, and therefore beyond my caring. What happened above the surface of the water had nothing to do with me—that, just as the rest of the outside world that mattered, was the realm of the Keeper.
Faceless, ageless, the Keeper ruled over every leaf, every twig, every sprite and breeze. Everything did as the Keeper willed it to, or it ceased to be. The Keeper’s forest led unsuspecting humans to our clearing, so that we could lead them into the water. Whether our unseen monarch caused this or merely allowed it was none of my concern. I had only one care, one duty, and I was performing it now by gesturing to the lost man, and allowed him another small smile.
Having shed his burden, the man began wading towards us—me—again. His expression was still solemn, almost grim, with none of the playful eagerness that I expected by this stage. He scarcely seemed to see my brothers and sisters, though they were calling for him so loudly by now that it seemed impossible he did not know they were there.
My smile faltered as the man came to a stop, just as he reached the abrupt end of the shallow water, where the pond suddenly deepened. He did not feel for the edge with his feet. He did not look down. But again, he seemed to sense what was coming. His eyes rested on the surface of the water that separated us, then focused back on mine.
He dove in.
My brothers and sister howled with laughter as the man plunged into the pond, sliding down between the long stems of the blue lilies. We gathered together, watching him kick and squirm to get free. Each thrash and tug drove him deeper into the water. His limbs caught in the lily stems. The flowers, which are so lovely and delicate, are unyielding once someone falls into their snare. The man struggled. He shouted—not from fear, but from something else—and swallowed water.
My siblings flitted just out of reach, giggling as they watched him drown. I drifted between them, accepting congratulations with giddy humility. This was an unusual trial—normally we worked together, beckoning and cooing until the humans entered the water. Yet victory was ours. Or rather, it would be soon.
But something was wrong.
The man would not stop fighting. He was so badly tangled in the lily roots that he could not move one of his legs. The last of his air was slipping between clenched teeth, fleeing back to the world above. But he did not grow still. My siblings gave him a wider birth as he thrashed. He raised his head, and caught sight of me again. He twisted, and kicked, and freed one arm.
My laughter died on my lips. The man heaved with his other arm, and his body swung wildly in the water. Ungainly, trapped, seconds from death, he came towards me.
My brothers and sisters scattered. I was too startled to move. I remained, motionless, as the man careened in my direction. His free hand flailed, and latched onto my arm.
That final effort claimed too much of his strength—he was beyond fading now. But his grip was strong. I could not pull away. I could not pry his fingers loose.
Sparks of outrage caught in my chest, and I looked up to snarl at him. The angry words died just as my laughter had, fading before they could escape.
The light in his eyes was doused, but they still held that strange intensity as they found mine. Only now could I put a name to that light: recognition.
As his grip weakened, I realized that there was no harm he could do to me—not now, not even when he had been up on the shore. I stopped trying to scrape his hand off of mine, and remained where I was, watching with fading pleasure as he lost the wager he hadn’t knowingly taken.
His eyes were gray, and seemed to carry in them some weight greater than any I could comprehend. My anger and even my confusion fizzled. I could not look away. I found my chest rising and falling in time with his final exhale.
He was not old, but he was not very young, either. His chestnut-brown hair was long—I could see how long now that the water was taking it out from its knot. His nose was bent from some ill-adventure I could only guess at. A scar ran from the corner of his mouth to his chin. There were other lines on his face—lines that spoke of years and hardship and, inconceivably, a life.
Somewhere beyond the water, beyond the forest even, this man had lived.
It was some time before I realized that his hand had fallen away from my arm. It was some time later that I realized there was no one inside of those eyes left to stare back at me.
My brothers and sisters were quick to return to their idle games and chatter; they were back to play and nothingness even before our guest had completely faded, even before his hold on me was lost. We care for very little outside of the game—if there is no human to call into the water, there are few things that will occupy our attention, and nothing that is not quickly washed from our memories. Such is our existence, and there has never been call to question it.
Still, I could not turn away. Though they were now vacant, the light in those gray eyes lingered in the memory of mine. I found only a strange discomfort when I tried to pull too far away from the meaningless, empty body. It was several days before I could translate the thought that was drifting up from a depth I didn’t know my mind held—a thought which caused me to linger near the scar-faced man, even as the pond claimed him, even as I knew the time must come when those curious gray eyes must fade to nothing, leaving behind only his pond-soaked bones.He had known me. And, impossibly, I felt as if I knew him.