The Old Sailor and the Singing Coast
[Note: This was the first story posted to my writing Patreon on February 23rd 2022. It was made available to all readers.]
When he was young, the old sailors would tell him stories about sea monsters.
From sea serpents to sirens to kraken, they described the creatures of the deep as ravenous and mindless, ready to sink any ship and devour sailors. Despite the harrowing tales, Herbert still became a sailor, even though the old barnacle-crusted men laughed at the skinny kid who jumped and screamed at any shadow in the water. Then he grew older, wiser, but he always feared the creatures of the sea.
Until he met them.
Captain Herbert squinted out at the rocky coast ahead, and the fog began to swirl ahead of his small ship. That looked like the right formation, towering like a false lighthouse. They’re getting close.
His was a small ship, enough for him to live on, a small amount of cargo, and occasionally some passengers. The waters were calm enough for him to leave the helm for a moment. He first checked on a crate laying by the starboard rail, tied down and smelling strongly of fish. Everything looked secure up here.
He opened the small door to the inside of the boat, and heard rough voices waft up. There’s three men below, all huddled around the small plank that could almost be a table. One was a large man who had to hunch down because of the low ceiling, one a nervous fellow who kept tapping his foot, and one who turned green even before he stepped onboard. They all looked up from their card game, as they heard the steep ladder creaking beneath Herbert’s feet.
“Alright lads,” Captain Herbert reached into a nearby cupboard, and withdrew a hank of thick rope. “We’ll be in siren territory soon.”
The nervous one eyed the rope and swallowed. “Do you really have to - ”
“You agreed to this when you got on this boat, you knew what you were getting into. This is my ship, I’m the only one who’ll sail through this area. I explained the dangers, and since you all agreed to come aboard, you’ll follow my rules. Siren songs make men go mad. Now,” Herbert frowned. “Sit.”
They all obeyed.
“It won’t be that uncomfortable,” Herbert continued. “And the ropes will come off soon as we’re past the sirens.”
“...is it really that bad?” The sickly passenger asked. Poor man still looked green.
“Oh yes, when I first started sailing this route I lost a passenger after he jumped over the edge and drowned before he could get close to the sirens. They don’t mean no harm by it, it just has that effect on some folks.” At least he thought they didn't mean any harm.
The passengers grumble but offer no further resistance or complaint. Herbert loops the ropes around each passenger’s legs and arms, looping them through iron hoops nailed into the wood. He made sure each one had just enough space that there was no risk of cutting off circulation, but would hold them tight when they heard the song.
“All right,” Herbert stretched his arms above his head in an attempt to ease the inevitable pain in his back. “Sit tight and we’ll be through before you know it. Shout real loud if you need me.”
He went back above deck, and shut the door to the lower deck, muffling his passengers and their complaints. He also secured the small door with a latch lock, then paused to consider the chains hanging limp on either side.
The old sailor had seen people drown. Once after a man had leapt off a boat on this very route, screaming for the sirens to embrace him. The path around the Singing Coast was dangerous, and if anything happened to the boat his passengers would die. They would die too if he didn’t restrain them, it was an ugly calculation he made every journey. He decided to leave the chains alone, the latch could be undone from this side easily enough. He returned to the helm, grabbed the wheel, and focused on the route ahead.
The water was silent. He roughly followed the line of the rocky coast, untouched by human influence. He couldn’t see much on the coast itself, obscured by the fog, and he’d never worked up the courage to explore. A chill wind blew across the water, and with a grumble readjusted his beanie.
The song was a wisp at first, hidden by the fog as much as the rocks he’d long since learned to navigate. He began to hear his passenger’s voices rise, muffled beneath the deck. Herbert grumbled to himself.
He never did understand why most people find their song irresistible. It sounded nice, sure, the sirens are talented singers, but he didn't want to jump overboard to reach them. It made for good business though, he thought, as he began to hear yelling from the below deck. He allowed himself a haughty smirk.
New silhouettes begin to appear, rising from the rocks they blended in with, or bobbed up from the water. They drew closer, dark shapes following in his wake. The creatures could almost be mistaken for human women, but for the warped shark-like faces, and many rows of sharp teeth. Watery, dark eyes watched him as his boat passed.
He gave the nearest one a friendly wave. “Go~od after~noon,” Herbert called in a sing-song voice.
The nearest one sang back a melodic greeting, a few of them waved, a sight that always made him smile. They’d never been able to teach each other their languages, but gestures were something they all could learn. A simple thing to create a firm foundation for what he liked to think of as a friendship.
They were intelligent creatures, sirens. It had been an accident, he’d gotten lost once, many years ago, and meandered into the rocky coast no one else would sail past. The sirens had been curious, this human stranger who did respond to their song, and he discovered their song was not to lure sailors, but it was how they spoke to each other. If he spoke as if singing they responded to his tone, if not his exact words. He guessed they didn’t recognize his regular speech as communication. With trial and error, they’d learned simple communication all could understand: gestures, tone of voice, some words. There was a particular melody he’d learned sirens only sang when grieving. It broke his heart when he heard it for the first time.
He’d tried telling people about the sirens’ true nature once. No one believed him, insisted it could only have been a dream or hallucination caused by their enchanted voices. He wished there was money in learning about them and communicating with them, but he had bills to pay. He made the best of it, if he offered safe rides through their territory no one would get hurt.
The boat tipped to one side briefly, and he looked over his shoulder to see a couple sirens flop aboard gracelessly. One giggled, the other sang a couple bars to Herbert. He gave her a nod, and the two sirens settled down nearby, and Herbert felt content.
It was peaceful. The sirens on the rocks would watch him pass, sometimes singing a brief greeting, while the two on board conversed in a quiet duet as they lay near the helm. The water was smooth, he barely needed to even use the wheel. Herbert began to whistle, not any particular tune, just something simple to harmonize with the melody around him.
There was a loud bang behind him, Herbert flinched at the noise, and the sirens fell silent.
He cursed to himself as he abandoned the wheel, whether it was the ropes or the iron rings that gave out, someone back on shore is getting an earful! The door shook as someone on the other sides slammed against it, howling. He looked back at the sirens on deck, both frozen in place.
“Gooo~o!” Herbert shouted at the sirens, waving an arm at the nearest rail. One scrambled over the edge and dove back into the safety of the waves. The second stayed frozen in place, hissing, dark eyed fixed on the door. He’d seen a siren maul a man who’d gotten too close, enraptured by a song that was never meant for him.
His joints burned as he rushed over to the small door. The whole deck rattled as the passenger slammed against the door, his incoherent yells muffled. Herbert fumbled as he grabbed the loose chains and secured them with padlocks across the door. The yelling continued, but the chains held. Even if he broke the door he wouldn’t be able to get out now.
Herbert looked up and saw the second siren now gone. Still breathing heavily, he walked over to the rail and looked out at the water, the rocks, the beach, and couldn’t see anything living. He checked the crate he’d inspected earlier, still secure even with all the ruckus, and began to untie and unhook it from its restraints. With a grunt he tossed it overboard, a splash followed a second after.
He let himself lean on the railing for a moment, huffing with exertion, his screaming heart beginning to slow down. The sirens are already dragging the crate onto a nearby flat rock, then with clawed hands open it to see it stuffed with his usual offerings: some imported seafood and simple medical supplies. One of the sirens spotted him looking back and waved at him with a toothy smile.
The old captain let himself release a long sigh, along with the anxiety in his tendons. He returned the wave, and returned to steering his boat.
As soon as the song faded back into the mist, the yelling below deck stopped. They’ll be feeling mighty embarrassed right about now. Given the trouble at least one of them caused, he’ll let them stew a little bit before he goes to untie them.
He waited for what felt like an appropriate amount of time. With the sirens now long behind them, he once again stepped away to reenter the passenger area. He undid the extra locks on the chains, opened the door, and stepped down the steep ladder.
The big man was once again seated, the torn ropes in a small heap by his boots. He looked, to Herbert’s estimation, almost bashful enough.
“Wasn’t myself,” muttered the big man.
Herbert huffed, but began untying their ropes still holding the other two. He’ll be giving the rope vendor a word when they get back to shore.
“What was going on out there?” asked the nervous passenger, rubbing his bruised wrists. “It sounded like they were swarming the deck!”
Herbert shrugged. “Just a hallucination. Their voices are enchanted, you know.”
The one who was looking green before still looked green. Herbert suspected the man will be making the return journey by road, a trip that would take days, instead of sailing with him again. It’s for the best.
“We’re through the roughest part of the journey,” the captain informed them. “There’s full canteens and some crackers in that cabinet, just slide it open. Yell if you need me.”
Back up to the helm, back to sailing. It’ll be at least an hour more before they reach their destination. He went to check the ropes of his sail, and hummed a song not written by human hands.