I can’t even die right.
Thomas lay flat on the deck of a recently wrecked ship, left alone with only his thoughts. His lifetime of luck had ended, but it was overdue. The scratching at the hull sounded in time with the discordant song that drifted on the wind. The roar of an occasional wave heaving itself over the side of the ship gave him a quick break from the depressing music, but he could always count on it to return once the ocean calmed.
Why won’t they just kill me?
Hours ago he had helplessly watched every member of his ship’s crew throw themselves into the sea in a desperate, final act to reach the source of the music. Thomas had been the lone sailor to find the music unappealing, and now he was all alone. The wind had pushed the unmanned ship into a cluster of jagged rocks while Thomas could do nothing but watch it capsize. A dark part of him had hoped he wouldn’t survive the wreck. Unfortunately for him, the ship didn’t sink. It had merely parked itself on the boulders. Only the starboard hull and main mast took damage, leaving the ship completely inoperable but still above water.
Maybe I should just get it over with.
It was a dark thought, but there was no way he could sail this ship on his own. His fate had been sealed the moment the sirens found his ship. He took a deep breath and let out a long sigh, pushing himself up from the wet floorboards. He had hoped that the sirens would leave if they couldn’t see him, but enough time had passed that he knew they would only leave when he was dead. The harsh wind attacked him as he stood upright, its frigid gusts causing him to shiver in his damp clothes.
He dug in the pocket of his sea soaked pants, pulling out a silver cigarette case. He hoped the case was protection enough to keep its contents dry, but with his luck the case was already empty. He hadn’t had the heart to look inside. He traced his thumb along the images sculpted into the silver: a fox sneaking through the grass beside a stream proudly holding a bird in its mouth. Thomas liked to imagine that the fox spent days hunting that poor winged creature, plotting and scheming its downfall. Catching the bird must have been important to the fox. Why else would he bother?
He frowned at the fake story and flipped open the case to stop himself from thinking about it. There were five carefully rolled cigarettes waiting in their slots, all dry. He blinked with mild surprise. It took him a few moments to work up the courage to finally pull one out. He put the cigarette in his mouth and dug for his matches. Unlike the cigarettes, the matches were very damp. He hoped they would still light.
It took a few tries, but eventually he had a lit cigarette. With reckless determination, he took a deep drag of the hot smoke. Intense prickles of heat gathered at the back of his throat that worsened by the second. He choked on the smoke, coughing and hacking to get the fire out of his throat. His eyes burned with tears, but he wasn’t sure if it was from the pain or from the smell. He now welcomed the cold wind, sucking in deep breaths of the chilly air to sooth the damage he had inflicted upon himself. He released a ragged sigh and waited a moment before trying again. He was careful not to overdo it the second time around.
“Ugh,” he groaned as he exhaled another round of violent smoke. “I should have known this would be how I die. Slowly and alone.” He frowned, wondering what point there was to talking out loud when he was the only person around for hundreds of miles. Then again, why not? “I shouldn’t have expected any better.”
His feet carried him across the ship without command. Peering over the side, he stared at the watery monsters that robbed him of his life. Each of them frantically clawed at the hull of the ship with the long, sharp blades at the ends of their fingers, mindlessly ripping splinters from the wood and throwing the shards to the sea. They obviously intended to do the same to him. There must have been at least 30 of them pushing themselves against the ship in a futile attempt to reach the deck 20 feet above. The sirens looked just like regular women, if regular women had blue skin and fish tails instead of feet. Their eyes were a pale milky shade of white that thinly masked the empty violence behind them. The somber song had grown louder and more urgent at the sight of him. The song was lovely, but it was nothing to die over.
“Isn’t it sad?” a woman’s voice asked from behind him. The unexpected sound sent a surge of panic through his body, and he scrambled quickly away from the voice. He only managed to create a foot of distance between him and the new entity standing beside him. Clinging for his life to the bulwark, Thomas peered up at the large woman who now stood on the deck with him. Her skin was almost the same pale tone as his own, but there was a nearly imperceptible blue tint sparkling from deep beneath it. Cloudy white fabric clung to her in a way that resembled a dress, if dresses could be made of mist. Two sapphire blue eyes watched him from beneath a turbulent pile of waves that cascaded from her head with an inhuman elegance. He would have almost been convinced that she was human had it not been for the unnatural sea-blue hair and her towering height of what had to have been at least 8 feet.
Thomas gawked at her, rubbing his eyes several times in an attempt to make her disappear. “Am I hallucinating already?” he asked. He didn’t know whether he was talking to the large woman or to himself.
In an exaggerated motion the tall woman whipped her head around to look behind her, her elegant blue waves rolling over her shoulders with a liveliness that made him wonder if her hair had a mind of its own. Her eyes fell upon Thomas again and she shrugged. “I don’t know, what do you see?” Her voice was like pouring water and surfacing bubbles. Her expression was blank but there was laughter behind it, as though she was waiting for him to laugh so she could join in.
Thomas didn’t laugh. He tightened his grip on the edge of the ship, his teeth clenched tight. Was she mocking him? “Um,” he hesitated, "you.”
Her laughter broke through, dancing jovially across the waves and echoing over the horizon. “You’re not hallucinating. I’m real. I forgot how easy it is to scare humans.” She grinned at him.
“Humans?” Thomas asked. He pushed off the bulwark and took a step back.
The woman approached the edge to stand close beside Thomas. He took another step away. Her gaze remained on the sirens below as she spoke. “I am curious, how did you resist the sirens’ song? I have never seen any human man survive an encounter with a siren. You survived an entire swarm.” His stomach tied itself in a knot as he thought about the answer to that question. “You must have incredible self-control,” she added.
“If you’re going to kill me, will you please get it over with?” he asked, wishing for an end to this bizarre encounter.
She laughed again. “I’m not here to kill you, I would like to help you.”
Thomas sighed sadly. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I have many names, but in this form I go by Mariana. You probably know me better as the ocean.”
Thomas scoffed. “The ocean? You are the entire ocean?” He spread his arms open to gesture all around him. “As in, the sea? You?”
"What? You don't believe me?" she asked. Without waiting for an answer from him, Mariana hopped onto the ledge and dove into the swarm of sirens. Before she could reach the surface of the water, her opaque blue skin became translucent until she was nothing but a stream of water. She hit the surface with a pathetic splash.
Thomas stepped away from the edge of the ship. “That was abrupt.” He shrugged and looked over the horizon. The landscape of the sea slowly shifted, a large hill of water growing about a hundred feet away from the ship. This was how waves normally began, but there was something ominous about this one. It was huge. Thomas watched carefully as it raced toward the ship in silence, growing with its rapid approach. Just as he had suspected, he was soon faced with a massive wall of water.
The reality of the situation sank in. He ran as fast as his feet would carry him to the narrow hatchway that led below deck. The floor was slick with the remains of the previous waves that had relentlessly bombarded the ship. He slipped at the edge of the stairs, clumsily falling to the lower deck just as the wall of water came crashing down with a deafening roar. He wondered momentarily why he hadn’t just let the wave kill him. It would have been a better death than the one that awaited him below.
The roar of water beating against the sturdy wood died down. A river of icy sea water streamed in from the open hatchway, drenching Thomas. He sat in the puddle and tried not to think about how cold he was. Just as she had departed, Mariana returned, forming her human shape from the water of the sea-soaked floor. Thomas watched, more irritated than amazed as he realized that she had caused that deadly wave just to make a point.
“Do you believe me now?” she asked, a smug smile poised on her perfect, almost human face.
“No.” He glared at her from under a mess of drenched blond hair, persistently dripping salty water down his face. In reality, the gigantic wave had convinced him that there was something otherworldly to her but he hated the smug look in her eyes and didn’t want to feed her arrogance. “Are you a magus? An elementalist maybe? There’s no way you are the entire ocean, you would have to be a deity.”
“Yes some people recognize me as a god. It’s a term humans made up but I think it’s pretty fitting.” The smug expression did not leave her face.
Thomas rolled his eyes. “If you’re a god, what do you want with me?”
Mariana’s smile remained on her face but she hesitated before speaking. “I need your help.”
“I thought you wanted to help me,” Thomas said dryly.
“Of course I do, but my time is very valuable. I’m not going to help you for free. If you help me out, I’ll get you home.”
Thomas stood up. “No thank you. I don’t want to go home.” He turned around and began to ascend the dripping staircase. The bright sun stung his eyes as he emerged. He squinted as he tried to get a sense of the damage done to the deck by Mariana’s wave, not that it really mattered. She was already waiting for him in the same spot in which she had first appeared.
“How about this, if you help me I won’t leave you here to die?” She grinned at him.
Thomas scratched his face pensively. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you want to live?” she asked.
Thomas shrugged. “Not really.” He thought for a moment before he continued. “Actually, no. Just leave me here.” Mariana gaped at him as he walked across the deck and perched himself on a barrel that had been tipped on its side. He pulled out his cigarette case once more and lit another cigarette, finding more success with it the second time around.
“What?” Mariana asked, dumbfounded. “That goes against human nature. Every time I think I understand you humans you do something completely backward.”
Thomas shrugged again and inhaled the hot smoke, not bothering to explain himself. Mariana frowned at him. “Fine,” she said. Mariana stepped overboard and jumped back into herself, leaving Thomas all alone again. As he slowly burned his way through his second cigarette he wondered what else a deity could offer him that he might want, but he couldn’t think of a single thing.
Suddenly Mariana appeared at the side of the ship again leaning from the outside in, somehow suspended in mid-air. Thomas raised his eyebrows at her. “Please help me,” she pleaded.
“You seem pretty desperate for an all-powerful deity. What can I do for you that you can’t do for yourself?” he asked.
She released a bubbly sigh. “It’s not that simple. I’m not able to interfere with the lives of the creatures that live in me. For years, countless colonies of merpeople have flourished all across the earth in many bodies of water. The largest group lives in me, of course.” She paused to flash a proud smile. Thomas rolled his eyes. “Recently a plague has spread through my colonies, and it’s spreading fast. There’s something strange about this disease, but I can’t intervene. I have never met a man that has been unaffected by the sirens as you have. I need your help, please.”
“Aren’t you intervening at this very moment? How is saving me different from saving them?” Thomas asked.
“You don’t live in the sea, you live on a boat. You’re a creature of Earth.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” he said sarcastically. “Why can’t you find a woman to help you?”
“What do you mean?” Mariana asked.
“Nothing,” he said quickly. Mariana watched him closely, waiting for an explanation. “So this ‘plague’, it only affects mermaids? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a male siren.”
“That’s right, as far as I’ve seen it’s only ever affected mermaids.”
Thomas inhaled from the cigarette one final time before flicking the butt overboard. Mariana’s eyes followed the path of the smoking bundle of paper until it fizzled on the surface of the water. She glared at him. He ignored the dirty look. “Alright. I guess I can help you. But I want something more than survival as a reward. I was content to die here until you so selfishly stuck your nose in my business and offered to save my life.”
“I don’t have a nose,” she said. Thomas shot her a blank stare. “What would you like as your reward? Your own ship? Immortality? Magic? Wealth?”
Thomas grimaced. “Immortality? Absolutely not. No.” Thomas paused, trying to shake off his disgust. “I have a few of those other things already. Let me think about it.”
Mariana grinned at him. “Well hurry up, I don’t have all of eternity.” The moment she finished speaking she threw her head back and cackled into the open air. It took her a few moments to compose herself to speak again. “It’s funny because I do have all of eternity. But you don’t. Why aren’t you laughing?” Thomas’s blank stare had become an irritated glare. He was regretting that he had agreed to help her.
“Should we get started?” he asked.
Mariana excitedly jumped into the ship and landed on the deck with a wet splash. She ran to him and wrapped him in a cold, watery hug. “Yay! Thank you!”
Thomas groaned. “Don’t make me change my mind,” he grumbled. Mariana released him and the familiar chill that accompanied evaporating sea water stung his skin. He began to think he would never be dry again.
“First, we need to figure out what’s causing it,” Mariana said.
Thomas sighed heavily. “You don’t know what’s causing it? This is going to take forever.”
“Yes, it is. That offer of immortality is still on the table,” she said, throwing her head back to laugh again.
Thomas shook his head. That offer was going to stay on the table. Forever.