June 9, 2019

AGAINST NATURE by Rebecca Katz

The water beckoned me home.
But, I was determined, and
the city air was humid...
I am a siren, which means it’s hard not to drown men. It’s nothing personal. It’s just instinct, like a cat stalking a mouse or chattering at sparrows through a window. The water created us to live for centuries in her womb, but she was often a grave to humans, like the earth they preferred.

Yet Mother Water has been ailing. Every day there are fewer sirens and fewer virgin oceans, free of plastics that turn our homes into chemical traps. Only the furthest deeps are safe from roaring engines now. It’s a poor compromise to hide there singing to dumb animals.
So I left the ocean. I turned up naked near a port, where the sounds and smells of a human city startled me. There was traffic, metal, gasoline, a hundred unknown and pungent foods. I lay beneath a bridge for several minutes, adjusting. The water beckoned me home. But I was determined, and the city air was humid. That was promising: I would not have stayed in a desert.
I wandered into a boutique of overpriced clothing. At the time, I neither knew nor cared that it was overpriced. Humans wore clothes. I needed to pass as human. Therefore, I needed to cover myself. The cashier was a pimply young man whose eyes widened when he saw me. He didn’t mind or call the cops. I didn’t even open my mouth. The old trick—a siren’s beauty—bewitched him. I wanted to learn new skills among the humans, but not just yet. That morning, I was glad to leave the store minutes later wearing clean shorts and a too-large Canada t-shirt, on the house.
Human life had its trials. I learned that one needed to pay rent, which meant working. A large pharmacy hired me. At first I was useless. I made ugly displays of toilet paper or tissues, which crashed down and made uglier messes in the aisles. I did not understand how some packages contained the same kind of item—shortbread cookies or blood-red lipsticks—yet were not the same. Who cared about the names or pictures on the boxes? We had no brands and no trademarks in the water. The cash register terrorized me. There were too many buttons to push, too many codes to remember. I dreaded the days when they put me on cash. So did the customers, who made their contempt clear. Sometimes, when I left work, I was ready either to weep or to drown the lot of them. I could have managed it, too, even in the cramped, smelly pharmacy bathroom.
But there were joys on land as well. Florence, a cheerful, round-faced student who worked at the pharmacy, was my first human friend. She helped me clean up spills and opened extra cashes when I struggled. Sometimes, I found a mindless sort of pride in doing something right—in rolling glitter onto a young girl’s eyelids, and watching her face light up when I turned the mirror toward her. (She made her mother buy two of those little bottles, which we called eye shimmer.) In learning the buttons and keystrokes on the cash, eventually soaring through transactions I had never heard of before that summer. Within a month, I started to enjoy my work. It gave me time to observe humans and to talk with Florence.
“I need to get back in shape,” she said, during one of our breaks. “You’re lucky, Ondine. You’re built like a model. Me, I need to exercise. There’s a pool in my mom’s condo. Come with me sometimes? My mom’s too old, and it’s boring alone...”
That’s how I found my swimming pool. I had avoided them in those early weeks; they made me homesick. Besides, I wanted to succeed in a new element. Now that I was succeeding, I felt a dip in the water could do no harm.
Florence’s mother lived in a lovely building. The pool smelled of salt water, like the sea; no one had polluted it with chlorine. We spent many Saturdays there. Poor Florence would lament that I put her to shame in my bathing suit. I always changed the subject. I helped her improve her swimming strokes while she taught me the names people gave them, which I had never learned. My family did not speak of the front crawl, butterfly, or dog paddle. We simply moved through the water.
Florence helped me in other ways, too. The pool grew busier as the weather warmed, cresting to a dreadful July heatwave. Sometimes the noise of other swimmers made my head hurt. Deep sea creatures are not as loud or boorish as humans, I’ll say that for them. When I felt as if all the chatter had entered my brain, squeezing and choking the blood vessels, Florence would get out of the water, find her purse, and offer me aspirin. Then she would drive me home or take me to her mother’s for iced tea.
One family was especially nasty. An old grandfather winked at female swimmers, who wanted nothing to do with him; complained to his son about his gout or constipation; or whooped at the radio if they were giving the soccer score. If they weren’t—if building management had put on a different station—he would bang on the bench and complain about the music. His son, a father himself, was little better, hooting with the grandfather over sports. At least this specimen tried to pry Grandad away from women. There was a small grandson, too, a blond boy of about four. I worried for that child, even as I wished I could drown his family. What were those men teaching him?
Several times, I nearly dragged Florence from the pool the moment I saw them. Their voices grated, made my skull feel as if you’d loosed all the city traffic inside it. Worse, the instinct to bewitch, then drown them was almost overpowering. It was like a physical ache in every muscle. It rose deep in my diaphragm, where I would begin my song—the low, haunting, music of a siren. Then the urge would move to my tongue. It would be so easy to snare both men by licking my lips, looking them full in the face, doe-eyed, and as harmless as a cool glass on a hot day. At last the itch would creep along my arms, down to my fingertips. I would caress them as I held them struggling beneath the waves. It would take seconds…
I resisted. But it was hard not to see them as my enemies, until the day the boy drowned.
I was alone. Florence had a summer cold, but she had loaned me her key. The child was a strong swimmer, for one so young. He must have had lessons, but any human can find themselves in danger: water does not welcome their kind. It took only a moment. The father had turned away, seeking his ringing cell phone. Grandad wasn’t there. His gout had returned last week, and he’d complained loudly enough for the whole city to hear. Private apartments had no lifeguards, and the other swimmers were busy with their own workouts or their own children. I looked over at the boy by chance. He did not appear to be struggling, but I knew the signs. Wide, frightened eyes. Little arms bobbing on the surface, as if he were playing at some stroke he had not yet mastered. With each upward bob he had less time to exhale, then inhale, and none to call for his father. Then he sank deeper.
I wish I could say I moved instinctively, but that’s not quite true. I shot toward him through the water, kicking some teenagers, who yelped. I didn’t care. Within seconds I had pushed through the crowd and grasped the child around his small chest. He’d had no time to cry before, poor thing, but he cried now. A wail broke from his lips, to be cut short by gasps and coughs.
His father heard us at last. His face contorted and he threw down his phone before hurtling into the water. He was tall enough to stride toward us. The crowd had thinned, naturally. I presented the boy to his trembling father, who took him.
“Buddy—Noah, are you OK? Can you breathe, little buddy?”
“He’s breathing,” I said, “but call the authorities.”
Someone—a plump teenage girl, I think—found another cell phone and called 911. Father and son embraced and I noticed that, for once, the father was silent. Tears shone in his eyes. An ambulance arrived, and they left. I resumed my swim, shrugging away stares.
A week later the father found me and invited me to lunch with his family. He was restrained, still quiet, maybe a little awed. The child, Noah, bounced over and hugged me, before offering me a plastic car. His father ruffled his hair.
“We, uh, don't know how to thank you,” the man said. Once again, his eyes were bright and damp.
“You already have.” I held up Noah’s token. The father smiled, but insisted that I join his family the next day. I accepted.
As soon as I arrived for Sunday lunch, I found myself wishing I had brought Florence along. Noah was sweet. His grandfather, however, made me uncomfortable by gushing about my heroism and saying he would call the mayor or the papers—that the whole world should recognize me.
“Did the paramedics thank you?” he asked from his armchair. His fat frame was sinking into the green velvet. I imagined him sinking beneath my touch in the bathtub instead.
“They did.” I gritted my teeth. The mother, at least, inched into view and gave me a sympathetic look. Yet the sight of her long, glossy hair and pearl necklace felt like a punch to my ribs. She reminded me too much of my own family.
“Did the hospital call you to thank you?” asked the grandfather.
“I don’t think it works that way,” said Noah’s mother, “but we’re very grateful. I can’t even—”
She choked up. Tears filled her eyes, totally unnecessary, because her son was alive. I did not know what to do. I was proud of saving Noah, yet it was harder than ever to break bread with these humans in their chilly penthouse. The drowning itch burned even worse in my arms and my lungs. I had betrayed my nature. Did Mother Water want a sacrifice? A bloated corpse floating in the deep, to replace the one she had lost? Grandad would do nicely.
I accepted the humans’ praise, and told myself that I could make my own nature, write my own story, at least to some extent.
But it was a strain. Perhaps I would return to the water and my sisters while I still could. Perhaps I was due back home, for a visit if nothing else. And perhaps I would come back to Florence and this human city next summer, when the wind blows warm and the air is humid.

Rebecca Katz was born one winter night in the midst of a discussion of Victorian literature. She is currently a PhD candidate at McGill University. Her work has appeared in Enchanted Conversation, Every Day Fiction, and several academic journals. She lives in Montreal with her husband, too many plants, and a beautiful condo pool—an aspect of Mother Water.
Instagram: rebecca.katz3

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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