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Edward Stapleton

Callidora

Callidora the siren perched on the rocks by the shore and sang her soft song. She did not sing a love song, but it spoke of something like love. It was a song for hunger. Somewhere beneath the sweet soprano notes was a coldness—something mechanical, and empty—that troubled you even as you surrendered to its beauty. The sailors who fell under it spell knew they would meet their deaths if they approached, but they swam to it nonetheless. Perhaps they were hungry, too—hungry to die for something beautiful. The sailors would swim up to shore, clamber over the slippery rocks, and look into Callidora’s vacant eyes. She sang to them even as she ripped the flesh away from their bones. They smiled as they died. Even as the last fragments of life ebbed away, they were under her spell.

When at last they died, she finished her song then devoured her prey. The bones would join the sun-bleached pile of sailor bones from centuries past. Callidora would rinse her blood-drenched body in the sea and then, her desires met, she would do what men and sirens through the ages have done when the hunger subsides and the tasks are complete. Callidora would think.

“Is there more to life than this?” she would ask her sisters often, to their continued annoyance. “Do we exist only to devour helpless sailors? Why would the gods make such creatures as us?”

 

It can be said that there is something missing from all creatures, and it is this incompleteness that brings the birds from their nests and the sailors to their ships. It is incompleteness that brings us all into the world and makes living possible. We all feel it when we are left alone with our minds. But Callidora, who had lived her many years on this barren and nameless island, felt it more than most. She would wade among the wrecks of her victims’ ships, collecting relics from lands she would never see: maps, and scrolls, and weapons. She carried them to her sea-cave, and by the fading twilight she would read about places and battles and accounts of great men from a world that seemed full of eternal change and growth. She envied her prey. Her own world had never changed.

One day, during the season when the rains fall the hardest and Ocean is at its least forgiving, after feasting on a trio of Athenians, Callidora found a different kind of scroll. Tucked into the boot of one of her victims, beside a sketch of a young Greek woman, was written a poem to the sailor’s distant love. Sirens do not feel love, but love is a hunger and even the immortals know hunger. The sailor’s words spoke to the incompleteness that filled her restive mind with doubt and yearning for so many centuries. He spoke of a woman’s soul connected to his own, and how his love for this woman made him more than a person. Callidora wondered if such a thing were possible for her—if some measure of this feeling called love could fill the gaps in her soul.

She imagined a young and handsome sailor by her side, not as a noontime meal but as a partner in her life. He would tell her about these distant worlds he visited, and the strange beings he encountered along the way. When he was away, she would long for him as her victims longed for her when in the grip of her song. He would satisfy every burning question, and every aching need, for when a creature is happy it has little need for philosophy.

 

All night, as the full moon drew the ocean foam into her sea-cave, she pondered a life apart from the wreckage and the barren rocks and carrion of sailors.

In the morning, when she sang her song, it was a different song. This was a love song, as she imagined a love song to be. It spoke of mutual yearning, sacrifice, and, most of all, feeling whole and complete. The song was louder and sweeter than any song she had ever sung, and the world seemed to fall under its spell. Even Callidora’s sisters stopped their own singing and turned to listen, wondering themselves if there were any truth to these words.

Callidora was not singing for her hunger, although that was great too, and she was not singing for the world, although her world had been different since she discovered the sailor’s poem. She was singing for herself. She was singing for the being she wanted to become, and so each note was infused with the warmth she found inside—a warmth she had not known was there.

At last, under the midday sun, a ship appeared in the distance and turned towards the island where the sirens sing. The ship continued eagerly, even into the rough shallows. It continued until the ship, drawn by Callidora’s melody, collided with the rocks and became a heap of timbers, and the sea grew crimson with the blood of wounded and dead mariners. The survivors struggled up the moss-covered rocks, even as Callidora’s sisters appeared along the cliff brining a gruesome death to all they could reach.

Only one sailor made it to the top, and looked upon Callidora. Her nude body was as tempting as her voice, even though her eyes lacked pity and her skin shone with an inhuman luminescence. When he reached Callidora’s side she stopped her song, but this time she did not eat his flesh. She reached out and touched his bearded, weathered face.

 

“Do you think I’m beautiful?” she asked him. “Do you love me?”

“I know what you are,” the sailor replied, “and I know there is no mercy, or love, or compassion in your heart. You are a siren, one of the Nereids who prey on the men of the sea, and I shall soon be your victim. But even now, even though I know I am under your spell, I swear that I love you. And I, who have seen half the known world, swear that only now I have seen pure beauty.”

“I have recently learned of this thing your kind calls love. I want you to show me what this is. Our kinds share an emptiness and a hunger that is outside of our earthly appetites, and I feel that this love may be the answer.”

“Love is the answer to all things. Even now, before the gates of Troy, thousands are dying for the love of a single woman. It is love that can save a man even as it kills him. Nothing is as beautiful or as dangerous as love.”

Callidora brought the man, who was called Alexander, to her sea-cave. She asked him about the world on the other side of the ocean, and about the battle scar that decorated his body—scars from “Spartan bronze” the man would say. He taught her about the men and the creatures who populated the Earth and the Sea. The world, it seemed, was filled with war and bloodshed, and men appeared to visit on each other the same destruction that Callidora and her sisters brought them. Most of all, he taught her about love.

There were many kinds of love, he explained. There was angry love that tormented men and women by keeping them together, for it filled a need that was greater than unhappiness. There was a divine love by which two people could become one, with every part of each moving inside the other. There was love that wounded and love that healed.

 

Then Alexander showed her the mechanisms of love. Their bodies embraced each other, their lips touched, and the fingers of each explored the skin of the other. Callidora felt her body tremble as the two swam together as in a mightier ocean than any upon the Earth.

Afterward they lay in each other’s arms, staring into each other’s eyes. “Have I satisfied you?” he asked.

She smiled. “Yes, I believe you have,” she said, before snapping his neck and feeding upon his flesh.

The night was hot and calm. Callidora studied the moonlight that danced in the evening waves. Why did it dance? Perhaps the moonlight knew about love, but Callidora knew at last that she never could.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” asked her sister Leucosia, as she sat by Callidora’s side.

“What strange beasts we feed upon! What strange rituals they practice! They are tormented by useless desires, they kill when they’re not hungry, and it seems that their women are as vicious as we are. It is no wonder they spend their lives roaming the empty seas, searching for something more. For a moment I envied them, but now I know why we are here. They are in anguish from an illness borne of their own needs and passions and dreams, and we are its remedy. We are the desire that frees them from a vicious world.”

When morning came Callidora sang her old song. It was not about love. It was empty and beautiful.

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