Each year, in late summer, a fleet of ships departed from the port of Achelous, bringing the criminals of the coast to their joyous execution in the Straits of Melpomene. For once, they were left unbound and unchained, free to hurl themselves into the lashing sea. And hurl themselves they did, each one leaping in more eagerly than the last, to be dashed into the lurking rocks. They leapt with outstretched hands and pounding hearts, their eyes filling with tears, their heads filling with song.
At a safe distance came the city magistrate with her court, to oversee the proceedings. They watched from a grander ship that spread its silvery sails like the pinions of the gulls circling overhead, and their eyes held the same hunger for scraps. The magistrate had proposed this form of punishment, and she wove her case with the deftness of a spider, arguing for the safety it granted to the ships passing by the strait and the dignity it afforded the criminals, compared to wasting away in a pit or choking on poison. The potential application in the arts went unsaid, but not unnoticed, for the magistrate had always been an admirer of beauty.
The company she kept was incomparable in such crafts, from Melete, whose poems induced reflection like a still pool; to Aoede, whose songs slid under skin as would a butcher’s knife; to Mneme, whose words stirred yearning for the lost and long ago. And yet, even their luster could not compete with the voices calling from the rocks, the same way that the glow of bronze is a poor substitute for the sun.
So eager they were for that light, that they strove and strove to catch it, straining their ears to hear the sirens, with their voices as capricious as the sea. One moment they sang with all the force of crashing waves and howling winds, the next with the coy, coaxing rasp of sea foam pulling back from the shore. As a child might cup the ocean in their hands, so the court wrote down impressions and melodies in fevered fragments, while the fleet of the damned loosed their freight to the open water.
The first sent to the siren’s shores were the petty and the rapacious, whose mean minds sought only to accumulate: officials who toyed with the treasury as a termite might gnaw through wood, port wardens who claimed their unwarranted share of the wares, thieves who raided temples for their offerings. They dove into the waves, dreaming of sunken ships spilling their treasures like split pomegranates. Even with such thin temptations as these, the sirens could weave their words into substance, turning lust for something as banal as gold and grain into dreams of glory and grandeur. Thelxinoë, her song tangling and threading into the prisoner’s souls like her dark tresses spilling down, watched as the damned went motionless and sank obligingly into oblivion.
Molpe, her sister, called to the vengeful and the ardent, with her surging voice that sent thrills against the skin, like the early lashes of a storm. Those guilty of crimes of passion met their end to her, as scorned lovers and jealous rivals plunged into waters as tempestuous and turbulent as they were. The salt spray against their upturned faces left tracks like tears as they chased illusions of reunions and revenge, while their bodies broke and shattered against the rocks.
Last came the visionaries and the madmen, and there was none better to welcome them to the depths than Agalope, with her luminous eyes that glinted like the rippling sea. Those aboard the magistrate’s ship bent their necks in a furious scrawl as they listened to her shining voice, telling of gods and monsters from unseen coasts and unmapped lands. Enraptured by these new realities, the prisoners walked as if in a dream, submerging themselves like a child being rocked to sleep.
The fleet returned to the city with a dearth of bodies and a bounty of spirit, arguments already brewing about whose work could best catch the light. Perhaps it would be Hypate, with her songs of doomed love that compelled one to unwise declarations, or Nete, with her hypnotic chords that captured the mind like a well-worn memory, or Mese, with her sculpted visages that brought gods to life under her callused hands.
As the debate raged on, the remnants of the sirens’ songs carried across the waves to where the magistrate stood alone at the stern, watching the grey water slip past. It was too far to lure her in; the sirens knew, and they would keep their word not to harm her, in exchange for the harvest each year. But they continued to cajole her, not to throw her life away among the rocks and waves, but to join them on their perch. The paltry imitations of their own arts had no interest to them; they paid no heed to the poets and bards laboring over melody and lyric. For it was easy to make beauty out of beauty, to spin splendor from splendor. But the woman who had made an execution into a festival, who could transform the derelict and the miserable into luminaries, had the makings of a siren in her.