“Now my young friends, hear of the perils that await you should you ever see the ship Sirenia sailing on the far horizon beyond this bay under the full moon’s light or hear its ghost crew hags singing to you!”
So spoke the aged mariner to the village children as they sat in crescent formation on the beach sand at his feet. All thrilled to hear him spin his long tales about the life he’d led on the high seas so many years ago. Never though, had he uttered a word about the ghost ship until now. Rumours abounded that not only had he seen the ship but had even sailed with it, rumours that he neither confirmed nor denied but which had been whispered throughout this village for so long, from one generation of children to the next, that even the youngest children, those not yet walking, shuddered to hear of the idea of a ship of ghost women. So when the mariner finally mentioned the Sirenia, all the children present fell silent and leaned forward (in particular one boy, small and puny for his size, sitting at the back of the group) to hear more of what the mariner had to say.
“Have you ever heard of A____ who ran away from home thinking he’d like to be a sailor instead of a fisherman? He was gone for a month on that evil ship and turned up on this very beach naked and hairy, devouring a gull in the way of a wolf.” The mariner paused and surveyed his audience, noting slight nods of heads and throats gulping. The story of A____ was well known in the village: the parents would have told the children numerous variations of the story. “Ah yes. The insolent child refused to obey his parents and carry out his daily tasks and so he ran off. He fell in with those devil women and they turned him into a dumb animal that had to be caged for the rest of his life. Ha-ha-ha, let that be a lesson to you all, ha-ha!” Two small girls sitting on the mariner’s left-hand side jumped and clutched at each other at the old man’s sharp cackle.
“And do you know of N____ who swam out to the ship at night and swam back at dawn the next day to discover he couldn’t walk because those hellish creatures sang his legs into an eel’s tail? He had to live the rest of his life in the sea alone for even the eels wouldn’t accept him as one of theirs! Hee-hee-hee!” So loud and wicked was that mariner’s laugh that several youngsters, boys and girls alike, stared at him uneasily, wondering if somehow he really had sailed with that siren crew and himself had come under their influence.
The small and puny boy at the back of the group had different thoughts. “He’s telling all these tales everyone hears from the old people so that we’ll be too scared to go out after dark or swim too far out in the bay! He’s probably got a box of gold hidden on an island somewhere and doesn’t want anyone to find it. And this ship, this Sirenia – it must be a real ship that comes in and picks up people to help sail it. One can get rich finding lost treasures while sailing on a ship. What a grand life! It must be better than going to school and having Teacher shout all the time, and then going home and having Auntie yell at me to wash saucepans.” So ran the child’s thoughts. He had lost his parents years ago and his only family was a surly aunt who relied on her tiny garden plot and the neighbours’ charity to support herself and the boy. The village children laughed at him because his clothes were often thin and ragged and his shoes were tied with strings or bits of rag. The village schoolteacher scolded him constantly for being late to school or for daydreaming, the one thing the boy excelled in, in a world that either treated him as a nuisance or a figure of fun.
“I’ll find this ship,” the boy muttered to himself, “I’ll find out if there’s treasure the old man is hiding and doesn’t want anyone to find.”
“... and so ye have been warned,” the mariner concluded, having exhausted his repertory of stories and his breath, “of what happens to disobedient children when they meet the Sirenia. The full moon is shining next week so beware! Ha-ha-ha!”
One full moon night after he and his aunt had retired for the night in their room and the woman’s noisy snuffling began, the boy quietly got up and crept around her and out of the house. He made his way through the shadowy back alleys and lanes behind the village buildings down to the beach. The boy shuffled through the sand down to where the fishermen laid their boats upside down and crouched down among them to avoid being seen by passers-by. Behind him, while he waited for the Sirenia to appear, the fires and lamps gradually went out, one by one, and the general noise levels dropped until only the lamps in the watch-towers on the far side of the village remained alight. The full moon gleamed brightly over the restless waters of the bay. The youngster was tired and his arms and legs ached from the long wait but within his thin body, the determination to see the ghost ship burned.
“It must come! It has to! I must see it!” he repeated over and over.
Waves of sleepiness rolled over and his eyelids wavered and were sore and heavy but he would miss the ship if he were to sleep. But it was so very hard to stay awake! He must stay awake! Even so, sleep kept coming at him as the waves of water come up the beach in a regular rhythm until his head bowed, his eyes closed and his body slumped onto the sand.
In the depths of sleep an angel’s honeyed voice began to hum a melody.
A long-forgotten memory of his mother singing to him appeared as the humming grew louder and clearer and the sounds formed distinct words. That voice, that must be his mother’s voice. It had to be! He could remember the words.
“Hush little sparrow, the night has fallen.
Stars are now twinkling.
In the nest you’re dreaming ...”
The singing grew louder, clearer and more confident. A distant flute, low and mournful, cooed and a chorus of female voices hummed. His mother continued:
“Hush little sparrow, the crow has flown.
The moon’s now shining.
‘Neath my wing you’re smiling ...”
Or so the song seemed to flow. As the music continued, he dreamed of warm hands lifting him up and rocking him. They put him in a nest of soft feathery bedding. He was a baby again in a gently rocking cradle. And he slept on.
“Why is there all this sand?” the woman rasped. “How did all the sand get into your bed? What have you been up to?” She slapped the boy across the face and he flinched. “Clean up this mess!” She jerked him to his feet and sand fell from his stomach and legs. “Clean up this room before breakfast!” Suddenly she remembered the pot of porridge on the stove in the courtyard. “Oh! The porridge must be boiling over!” She ran out of the room cursing, leaving the boy to sweep and tidy the room. A burning smell soon wafted through the air.
He was very late for school. “Late again! What’s the excuse this time?” the teacher sneered. The children looked away from the boy and tittered among themselves. Better him than the teacher pick on any of them. The boy mumbled something about cleaning out the bedclothes and eating foul-tasting burnt porridge.
“You expect me to believe THAT?” the teacher roared. The children fell silent. The boy wished the ground beneath him would open up and swallow him. “My dear boy,” the teacher said, “next time you’re late for school, you’ll be dismissed. I won’t tolerate any more of this nonsense from you. From now on, you’re here on time, otherwise don’t bother coming back. The same goes for the rest of you. Now, boy, go sit at the back of the class!”
The boy obeyed wordlessly. He managed to survive the rest of the day without getting into any more trouble. The girls ignored him and one boy made a face at him. No-one spoke to him at all. Not that he minded – his mind already was set on something much grander than school or home.
Again when he and his aunt were in bed and the woman began to sniff and snuffle, the boy crawled out of the room, went out of the house and away from the neighbourhood; he took the same twisting route away from the main streets and places where he might be seen and down to the beach. He ran across the sand as fast as he could go and crouched by the boats. He could hardly believe his good fortune that twice he had been able to come to the beach undetected. He brushed his fingers over the hull of one boat and felt the grit of sea salt mixed with the slimy film of seaweed on the wood.
Would the ghost ship arrive this time? Surely it would - this night would be the last full moon night for another four weeks. If the ghost ship failed to come, what would he do? He was certain to be late for school again after being outside so late and the teacher would throw him out for good. His aunt would be ashamed of him and would force him to leave the house. What would he do then? Where would he go? He had no friends in the village and he would have to beg for food in the streets, live in the rubbish tip with the dogs or leave the village. The future didn’t look bright. And he would never know where the mariner kept his treasure.
Behind him the village lights went out one by one and the village grew quiet. Only the watch-tower lamps continued to burn. The sentries would concentrate their watch on the fields of wheat and millet beyond the village walls. The boy could hear the men’s faint laughter. There wasn’t much for the sentries to do at night apart from watching the fields so they must be telling each other stories or jokes.
The boy’s legs ached from sitting for so long so he shifted his body and lay down on his stomach while keeping his head and chest up by propping himself on his elbows. Even so, the night was very long and no ship appeared on the distant frontier. Sleepiness threatened his vigil – his head would droop, his arms would slide forward in the sand, his eyes would close every so often, and just as frequently he would remember: the ghost ship! – and his head jerked up again, his eyes opened wide and looked out towards the far horizon of the bay which remained barren. The water in the bay rippled and murmured innocently in a rhythm unending as it was monotonous. As the boy’s eyes closed again and stayed shut, another rhythm welled up in his unconscious mind.
“Little mouse, little mouse, where is your home?
The cat has destroyed it, now I’m all alone.
Little mouse, little mouse, where do you go now?
Down to live underground, among worms I’ll prowl.”
His mother stopped singing. The flute cooed and trilled and the chorus of women’s voices went on sighing and humming, There was a sudden shriek of silver laughter. Silence followed.
“Mother, mother, where are you?” the boy cried out. “Don’t leave me here! Take me with you!”
“I’m here, my child, don’t fret,” his mother’s voice whispered.
“Don’t leave me!” The boy opened his eyes. In the dark, he saw a circle and it was filled with his mother’s face, vague and blurry. “Don’t leave me with Auntie! She doesn’t like me! She’s always hitting me and shouting at me!”
“Yes, my darling, I know she hurts you,” the blurry vision said.
“Don’t leave me, take me with you. I don’t want to go back. Where you go, I want to go too. Please!”
“Are you sure, little one?”
“Yes, I’m sure!”
He felt warm hands lifting him up from the sand. He looked around to see who was carrying him but the scene, save for the vision, was black. Somewhere in the blackness he could hear the flute’s melody, the women’s singing, the murmuring waters of the bay and the occasional distant laugh from the watch-towers. The face in the circle spoke again. “Are you sure you want to leave Auntie? You will never see her again if you do.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure!”
He sensed that the hands were carrying him very swiftly over the sand and the waters of the bay though he could not see anything except that white circle above him. The murmuring sounds of the bay seemed to be below him. He could still hear the music but not the noises from the watch-towers.
“Mother, where are we going?”
The face in the circle seemed to be fading away and his mother’s voice grew softer and distant. “We’re going away from Auntie, we’re going far away, just as you wanted ...”
He could hardly hear her voice and all he saw now was the full moon. “Mother! Don’t go! I can’t hear you! Mother!”
He was now falling – the hands had let go. He shut his eyes, expecting to fall into the bay and drown.
Instead he fell into a soft bed that seemed to be made of feathers.
He sat up quickly and opened his eyes.
He was sitting on a soft bed in a dark room, lit by a stream of moonlight coming through a narrow slit on one side of the room. Everywhere else he looked was black. Where was he? What was going on? Where was his mother? Who had brought him here? Why was he here
In the darkness, five white figures in the shape of women slowly appeared. They stood in a straight line some distance away from the bed. The boy gulped but no sound came from his throat. A cold feeling gripped his arms and legs. One of the figures appeared to motion towards him. His legs gradually bent of their own will, slid his feet under his knees and forced him to stand up. The five white women’s shapes developed further, he could see their heads bending towards the ground so that their long white hair covered their faces completely and fell over their shoulders and breasts and down past their waists and thighs. There were movements under showers of smooth hair that suggested arms moving.
He found his voice but it was high and tight. “Who – who are you?”
The figure closest to him lifted her head and threw back her hair. Her sharp bone-white face had huge black holes for eyes and a nose, and a fixed grin stretched right across her lower face showing large discoloured teeth.
“We are the sirens who brought you here,” she hissed. She reached out a long thing arm towards the boy, stretched out a long four-jointed finger and pointed at his legs. Immediately they took steps towards the woman.
“You are now a member of the Sirenia’s crew,” the woman said and her sisters, lifting their heads and displaying equally ghastly faces, chorused, “Yes, we have a new member. Welcome aboard!” One of the women brought out a flute and began to play a soft tune against her teeth.
“We have a place for you in the galley”, the first woman said, “come and meet the other crew members. There is plenty of work for a young one like you down in the galley. Sweeping, scrubbing the floors, serving your fellow crew – you will be kept busy always!”
His mind fought against the ghost woman’s order and he wanted to scream – but his mouth and throat would not move. His legs brought him to the five women who surrounded him and led him out of the room into a long narrow corridor where they walked in single file, he in the middle. While the flautist, blowing loudly and cheerfully, led the way, the others sang as they took their new charge down to the galley.
“New blood joins us on our journey far and wide.
Forever he’ll sail with us where our ship glides.
Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!
You who are now aboard, welcome to the Sirenia.
Welcome, welcome, welcome! You’re our friend perennial.
Day and night we sail so day and night you’ll work
to keep our ship gliding to the far corners of Earth.
Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!
Where’s your mother? Don’t ask, the lady has gone forever.
Keeping asking in vain, she’ll visit you never ever!”
The villagers searched for the boy for many days but having found no clues as to how or where he disappeared, they all gave up. The sentries, when questioned as to what happened on the night before the child’s absence was noted by his aunt, replied that they’d not seen or heard anything out of the ordinary: the night had been quiet.
The aunt soon forgot about her nephew and the village school teacher and his pupils quickly found a new victim to harass and vent their frustrations upon. Even the aged mariner, when entertaining his audiences with more tales about the siren ship, neglected to mention the boy among his characters. The boy had been the last of his family and in that place, no-one cared very much when whole families died out.