I suck in a deep breath as I dig my talons into the dark stone of my choir. The gills at my neck wiggle, trying to gain as much oxygen from the waves as I can before I am forced to use my mouth and nose for breathing. I’ve never done it before, and a part of me worries that I won’t know how.
Pearl-digger clicks beside me. Hurry up.
I whistle and clack my teeth. Give me a second; I just need to prepare.
Ranger, my director, hisses. Circle-carver, if you cannot get onto your rock, I will choose someone else to sing your solo today.
No! I tense and begin to climb the pitch rock, stabbing the crooks of my talons into the holes where previous sirens would climb. It’s so different from what I used to do with the rocks. I would grab sharpened clam shells or forgotten bones and draw circle after circle after circle upon the bottoms of the mountainous rocks, the white a stark contrast to the familiar black. I got my child name this way, and it seems only fitting to remember the occasion as I’m on my way to gaining my adult name.
I pull myself so that my head emerges over the top of the still water, my mouth opening reflexively and gulping a breath of dry air. Ranger was right; it really was an instinct.
I make it to the warm top of the stone, and revel in the odd sensation. It’s so different from the comfort of the toasty surface waters that surround me in their sun-baked safety, and insurmountably different from the deeper waters that are practically freezing compared to this. My mother, Eastern Light, told me the water would never feel the same after my first song, and I realize now she was right. Even though it is misty and the sun isn’t warming the rocks like it should be, it’s still warmer than i’ve ever experienced.
This is my first glimpse of the sky. It is grey and lumpy, like how the surface of the water looks underneath the seafoam, but less impressive. Regardless, I allow myself a moment to take in the sight.
I peek at the lower parts of the surrounding rocks and see my choir sisters peeking their heads up and finding their platforms in the sacred bowl-shaped rock formation. We blend into the stone so well, our dark scales and skin allowing for a natural camouflage against sailors that would try to hunt fledgling sirens.
I am in the center of the bowl, so that my song can be heard across the seven seas. My scale sisters surround me in order to harmonize and support me in my spell. This will be our first hunt together, our first chance to provide for our symphony.
I hum my beginning note, carrying the note around the bowl, listening to each of my sisters pick it up and vary it just enough for us to harmonize perfectly like the ringing of a ship's bells.
We will keep up this note until Ranger signals us to an approaching ship. When that happens, I will break off from the harmony and launch into my song, hoping that enough sailors on board are swayed into turning the ship towards the jagged rocks surrounding the bowl.
Over the humming I hear Pearl-digger’s gills click again. They never told us how boring this would be.
Our sisters whistle in amusement and agreement.
With that statement, the solemnity of the day is broken, and everyone begins clicking and hissing bits of gossip to each other as we continue to hum. I learn about Oyster-opener’s mother’s guesses on when the newest patch of foam will appear, and where Coral-hunter goes to grab the most rancid seaweed for her pranks. With every gurgling giggle, we become less like sisters and more like a unified choir, like we’re supposed to.
Our conversation breaks off when we hear Ranger slap the water with her tail twice. A ship is approaching.
I see my sisters, my choir, twist into their positions as I try to straighten my posture as best I can in the heightened gravity of the land. I dig my talons deeper into the stone and lock my elbows to keep me upright; it’s time.
I open my mouth and a clear sound pours out, tracing high and low as I portray my melody.
Unlike the “shanties” of sailors or the “music” of the pleasure boats, our songs have no words, only sound. We convey emotion and meaning without language, and the song is all the more powerful for it. We only ever get one song, and it is therefore purer and more beautiful than anything humans could concoct with their “instruments” and “lyrics.”
Tabs are closely kept on newborn sirens; when they show a particular affinity for something, it is likely that it, or something similar will become the message of their song. Some are clear; Pearl-digger, who, from birth, had searched every oyster for the prettiest pearls, will sing about riches, and easy ways to gain them; Oyster-opener will sing about gluttony, feasts that will never end and food that only grows in flavor. They will reel in ships and gain their adult names easily.
I am Circle-carver. No one had any idea what I would sing about. It isn’t art, which already belongs to Coral-arranger, or simplicity like Stone-looker has always displayed. It isn’t even texture; Sand-roller took that long ago. Some people guessed I wouldn't even have a song; that I would be tone-deaf.
But when I opened my mouth and willed my vocal cords to vibrate, I proved them wrong. I had a song, and it was beautiful. It was different.
So many of our songs are cheery, in what humans call a “major chord.” My song was not quite like that; when I sang my first note, it immediately contrasted from our harmonious humming to form a sour sound. Luckily, my choir practiced in quick changes to harmony, so they were able to adapt to this different song that danced off of my tongue. It formed a “minor chord,” that humans often called sad, but it held a different emotion than that. An emotion like the seaweed forests after light stops piercing the depths; mystery and ethereality.
I close my eyes in order to sink into my song even deeper. As soon as they close, I see something just as clear as if they were still open; as if my song has the same effect on me as on the humans.
I see my circle drawings, the tiny white marks scattered aimlessly over the dark stone. A flicker; the stone gets darker and smoother, the circles smaller and more prominent. Then I’m looking back at my drawings. Another flicker, this time longer. It happens again and again as I sing on, until I’m no longer seeing my drawings, but the other image.
I know somehow that it isn’t I’m staring at anymore. It’s something bigger, more extensive than even the sea. There are more circles than I could ever draw, ever count. They contrast with the big darkness much better than my circles either. They change, slightly, like I saw my scales look in the light of the surface, but they never move, never change shape. I suddenly feel very tiny, looking up at this immense drawing.
I am shaken from my image by a crash of wood against stone. The ship has succumbed to my song.
This is where my focus is most needed; the boat is sinking and, unless I keep their attention, the occupants will try to board their smaller emergency boats, or swim to grab on to one of our stones. My voice gains more volume, no longer subtle, like the melody of the krill, but the full-bodied shout of the whale’s tune.
There is a flash behind my eyes, and I redirect my focus to the images. There is movement in the black now. The circles didn’t move, but there are lines streaking across her vision, as fast as any panicked sailfish. The lines vary in color, just a little. Greys like the clouds, or faded blues and greens. They are only present for a moment, but they are so stunning regardless.
More and more of these glowing lines appear until there is more white than darkness now. It’s so bright that I forget my eyes are closed and try to squint against the light. It, of course, doesn’t work and I am startled from my song by an enormous splash of water, cold compared to the sun warmth I hadn’t realized I had grown used to.
Ranger whistles and clicks from where she floats in the water, amused. You may come back down, Circle-carver. It’s time for you to eat and hunt for your name.
The fins on my head flick in front of my face. I hadn’t noticed it was time to eat.
I roll off of my rock and hit the water hard, shooting towards the tunnels to join my choir. The rest of the symphony is waiting for us near the wreckage. They’ve already taken the liberty of eating and pulling everything valuable from the ship. They pass me with the crates of cloth and shiny things, each one clicking a short congratulations.
Calypso, the eldest of the symphony, beckons me over to where she swims in place under an untouched floating human. She holds something in her hand; round like a stone, but green like toxic algae.
It is called a lime. She tells me. It is sacred to the humans, and so it has become sacred to us.
She offers it to me and I take it, bringing it to my mouth slowly.
You must tear off the outside first.
I use my talons and slowly tear the oddly-textured layer, revealing the lighter green flesh. With Calypso’s guidance, I bring it back to my mouth and pierce the pulp with my thin teeth and place my lips on the hole to suck out the juices.
I immediately reel back, lips puckering in distaste. Calypso clicks in humor and presses her forehead to mine. I never said it was a pleasant tradition. She nods to the floating man. Why don’t you go wash it down with something more tasty. I’m sure Captain Bertholdt will be an excellent meal.
A surprised hiss escapes my gills. The Captain? But that’s your meal.
Not today, little one. It’s your first catch.
My head fins wiggle and I dart towards the limp captain. My talons make quick work of his sleeves and soon I’m tearing his arms to ribbons leaving only pristine bones behind. As I feast, I tell Calypso about the images behind my eyes.
Is that normal?
Yes. Her fins point upwards and she moves closer. Many sirens recall the events that gave them hints as to the topic of their song. Your images are just ones you’ve never seen, but that existed in your subconscious all along.
But what are they? I whistle, frustration showing even with my mouth stuffed with what was once the captain’s calf. I’ve never seen anything so incredible.
She gives me a secret smile, showing silver teeth that remind me of those lines in the black. You will know, once you find your name. As soon as you are done with Captain Bertholdt, that is.
I eat ravenously, no longer savoring my meal. Once finished, I dart off into the ruins of what was once a ship, clicking a short goodbye to Calypso. I grab the nearest piece of wood and stare at it, looking for words. I find nothing and move onto the next piece, until I find the one with chipped paint spelling out what will soon be my new name. I clutch it close to my chest and swim back to Calypso, who flicks her fins and begins to lead me to another undersea tunnel. She clicks at her attendant as we pass, It is time, and she shoots off to tell the tribe to await my new name.
I follow Calypso through the dark twists and turns of the tunnel, whistling occasionally to keep from bumping into any walls. Soon, we surface in an immense cave that’s lit by something other than sunlight; still bright enough that I can see, but less gold and more pearly.
Calypso pulls herself up onto the floor of the cave and I surface just afterwards. It’s littered in wooden planks the same size as mine. She holds out her hand and I relinquish my name plank to her for her to read. We will be the only two in the symphony to ever read it. She looks it over and her right fin quirks.
What’s so funny?
It’s nothing, dear. Wait here while I tell the others your name is true. She crawls her way to another opening in the cave, this one leading out to open air, and slides down with a parting remark. Observe the view; I have a feeling you’ll like it.
When she leaves, I make my way to the opening, looking for the view Calypso mentioned. What I see rips the breath from my lungs.
It’s the dark expanse; not rock, nor any physical thing. It’s in the sky. It is the sky. And the white circles. They dot the sky like sand scattered on stone, and just as numerous. I thought that the sight my song brought me was incredible, but this? This is incomparable. I suddenly understand how the sailors so easily gave in to the lure of my song. This sight alone is worth losing everything for.
Calypso surfaces with a splash, drawing my attention. Are you ready?
Yes, but first, I stare again at the sky of circles, what are these called?
Her fin flicks again. Those, little siren, are called stars.
Oh! This time my fins flick as I whistle uncontrollable giggles.
Come along now, we need to welcome you. She tugs me back underneath the waters, tearing me from my dear stars.
We travel deeper and deeper into the sea until we finally arrive at our town, affectionately called “The Shipyard,” built out of splintered planks and caves. Everyone waits for me in the center.
Well? Calypso nods at me. Why don’t you introduce yourself?
I straighten and swim just a bit higher, glancing to where I know my sky circles to be, even though I can’t see them.
My name, I gurgle, is Northern Star.