June 9, 2019

THE OCEAN FOR ITS MUSIC by Ellen Huang

You have only destroyed
our temporary bodies.
You, then, shall embody our will...
What can match the ocean for its music, thought the piper. He had tried fleeing its sound by moving as inland as possible, and yet the ocean's mourning echoed everywhere. He had tried getting rid of the pipe, carved from mermaid bone and siren voice. But like a tremendous returning tide, it kept showing up in his hands when he awoke.

It was as if, long after the siren was slain, her powers still moved him beyond death. Sometimes his hands were muddied and he knew he had been called to sleepwalk out to where he buried it. Sometimes he'd wake in a cold shiver, clothes heavy and sopping wet, and realize he had dived into the depths of the lake in his sleep to fetch the cursed pipe.

There was no escape for him. He survived everything, as if the watery creatures figured one human sacrifice he could offer was too merciful a punishment. He was to live out all his years, shaped and made puppet by the siren voices.

You have only destroyed our temporary bodies, the pipe seemed to say when he played it to stop the ocean sounds in his mind. You, then, shall embody our will.

Things weren't supposed to happen this way. When he had gone out to sea, wax in his ears and dagger in his belt, he dreamed of being a hero like the others. When he cut the mermaid's throat and heard the scream in his very bones, his hand shook with the rush of victory. When the large, avenging birds with heads of women attacked from above, tearing out the wax from his ears and screeching in his face, to strike one dead felt tremendously great.

When they retreated, he thought he had won.

Now their songs wouldn't leave him alone. They were like haunted harps, enchanted and alone, playing by the eerie calm of a babbling brook.

He never thought he would find a peaceful brook eerie.

But perhaps he was a hero, he thought, for enduring the creatures' torment so the world wouldn't have to. So fewer sailors and fishermen would perish by a mermaid's song. So fewer men would be devoured by the monstrous harpies that encircled the misty island.

But no one considered him a hero. The seaside villages suffered harsher storms, as if some force of nature were offended.

"But it's not their fault," he heard a mother hushing her children. "They forget they affect the world with their grieving sometimes."

So he decided not to bring up slaying the mermaid to them. They would not appreciate it.


He traveled without a destination in mind, trying to escape the sound of sorrow that always found him. He didn't know what else to do. Giving the bone back to the world of waters never seemed to work. It was as if the forces that be refused to take back something ruined by human hands.
He tried even lying facedown in a foot of water, hoping to be soothed by an eventual silence. The music only intensified, encircled him as if the harpies were right there, dragging him back into the depths of the scene.
It was no use. How could he ever make peace with them again?
One day's peace, he begged. Give me one day's peace, please!
Then he saw the nix. Her eyes were wide and almost electric as the skies in stormy weather. Her head pulsed and glowed, even jiggled with her movements, as it was topped with a jellyfish. Stinging tentacles swirled around her as she looked up at him, curiously.          
With a scream, the piper jumped up and ran from the water. But he didn't get far, as if some weight held his foot in place. The jellyfish girl was stopping him, with elongated arms that ended in sticky, webbed fingers. Despite looking like a child, the jellyfish girl was strong, and willful. She kept looking at him, cocking her head, blinking, observing.
"Don't move," said the nix, in a simple child's voice.
"Go ahead, drown me," the piper said, almost nodding eagerly. "I can't take the voices any longer."
The nix's brows furrowed, as if she didn't know what he was talking about.
"You wish for peace," she said. Her eyes wandered past him, and her lips pursed. "If you give me a taste of your world, I will grant your wish."
"Oh, anything!" the piper exclaimed, nodding fervently.
The nix brightened, her bobbing head pulsing with light, her tentacles for hair moving almost as if alive. Her smile almost seemed to split her face in two. "There is a human village nearby, plagued with rats. I want to see what that's like. Take me there tomorrow, and peace will find you."

The piper agreed to her terms and the nix grinned as she let him go. For the rest of his time by the brook that evening, he and the nix shared stories. The piper was careful to leave out details of killing mermaids, because he was trying to have a new start after all, and no one would be expected to introduce themselves with their mistakes. Instead, he told stories of places he had been, what long hikes with tall grass were like, what baked bread and hot soup tasted like.
The nix shared stories of all the creatures of the deep that no man had ever discovered yet. But because she did not have much language for comparing to what humans have seen, she demonstrated that she could change shape. Her jellyfish tentacles would thicken and coil, or her face would droop and turn translucent, or she'd unhinge her jaw and sparkle her skin with silver and rainbow.
The piper acted delighted, because for once his mind was distracted from the voices, and here was something new and perhaps fascinating.
But when the nix slept, in her little girl form, head resting on the moss and fish tail stretched out on the rocks, the piper frowned. The voices didn't return yet, but he wondered what he had gotten himself into.
Was he really expected to take her into a human village and expected to be treated well?
Why would she want to be taken to a plagued and suffering town, anyway? What kind of morbid curiosity did the creature have? His mind trembled, as he lay awake there that night, wondering if he had just promised to do something he would regret even more.
He could ask her to turn human for the town visit. But what if she refused? The piper remembered her sticky grip and feared the worst. He couldn't refuse her if she were awake.
So before she awoke, he left for the nearby village she spoke of, to take his chances.
He played music on his way, on the very pipe he had cursed before. Something guided him to play the most beautiful song he had ever heard, as if by magic. He silently thanked the slain mermaid for her voice, for this granted sliver of peace. He wouldn't take it for granted.
The village was indeed plagued with some sort of pest, in every nook and cranny, devouring every scrap of food in sight the moment it was on display. People were crazed, starved, sick, and wailing. They were incredibly cautious, staying in their homes and whispering wildly of the invisible creatures that stole their food.
But a sense of peace washed over the piper and told him exactly what to do.

"Allow me to get rid of the pests," he boldly offered the mayor of the town. "If you'll let me live with you."

He was immediately promised a place among them, and a bag of gold so he could even live like royalty among them. The start of a new life shone before him.

The piper listened for the music to play in his mind, and he followed the tune. He piped his music and felt the clamoring presence of some sort of sentient shade follow behind him. He felt as if little beasts were following him, enraptured by the siren song in his hands. He could not see them, but he could feel forces of greed and chaos trail behind him.

The music in him told him not to look back. So he didn't, and faithfully played his pipe away, out of the village and into the brook where the nix lived. He felt as if he were driving out demons and putting them into pigs. He was a hero at last.

He played the music, peaceful and enchanting, light and lilting, and led the little darknesses into the water until they were no more.
Too satisfied for words, the piper leapt up and got ready to go into the village for his reward. A new life, a new story for his life, was beginning, he knew it!
But something would not let him go. He struggled against whatever mud or weight held him, and turned and met eyes with the electric, jellyfish-haired nix. Her eyes were cross, her mouth straight.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" she said. She sat upon the mossy rocks, her shimmering arms crossed, her fishtail coiled like a snake.
The piper bit his lip, but knew he owed the nix for the grace of this good day. The peace he had felt while piping for the village wasn't of his own power, after all, but of merfolk similar to her. But there had to be a way to satisfy all his debts and still earn that peace. Taking a creature like her into the village wouldn't be right. They'd call him the exchanger of plagues, introducing a new monster into their town. They'd shun him, perhaps kill him.
"I brought them to you for a taste, as you asked," the piper said. "What good is rushing into another world without knowing what to expect? The humans are crazed and afraid, they might not understand you as I have gotten to. So I brought a taste of it to you, so that you may see for yourself, and then decide."
To his surprise, the nix began to smile, and her grip loosened. "Oh! Thank you for that, then. I don't know if you know this about us, but we gladly feast on human worries. When we finish, humans are left with nothing but peace."
The piper's eyes widened, and he couldn't believe his luck. "Well, that's very interesting." He tried to back away before the nix tasted the worries and decided she'd like to see their source.
But the nix looked up from the waters again, her mouth dribbling with shades of dark water. "You play almost as well as mermaids sing. It reminds me of home."
"Why are you so far from home?" the piper asked, cautiously. He didn't want to stay long, but he realized he had never seen a jellyfish in fresh waters before.
"Storms of siren grief," she sighed. "The picture is not pretty."
The piper's whole body was trembling, wondering if the nix knew of his murder all along, and plotted vengeance. He had done their bidding. He had befriended one and done their bidding.
Yet, he had rid the human village of their worries, so perhaps it was not malevolent?
So why was he still here, unable to move with the grip of the shape-changing nix? Did she not trust him enough to let him go?
Then he felt her grip only tighten. "You will take me to see the village now, won't you?"
He looked into her eyes, and though it only took a simple answer for his release, simple trust for peace at last, he wavered, unable to answer. Meanwhile his new beginning slipped out of his mind's grasp, like gold lost to oceans above his head.
She simply watched, as if for his answer, she had infinity.
Feeding off his overflowing worries with eerie childlike laughter, she had infinity.        


Ellen Huang has a BA in Writing with a Theatre minor from Point Loma Nazarene University. She has pieces published or forthcoming in Gingerbread House Lit, Three Drops from a Cauldron, South Broadway Ghost Society, Sirens Call, HerStry, Diverging Magazine, Awkward Mermaid, Wax Poetry and Art Magazine, As I Am, Writers Ink, Between the Lines, Our Daily Rice, Rigorous Magazine, Ink & Nebula, Whispers, Quail Bell Magazine, The Folks, Hummingbird Review, The Driftwood, The Gallery, and Perfume River Poetry Review. She’s also been Managing Editor of Whale Road Review. She loves swimming in the ocean, practicing pyrography, and wearing capes.

Background Cover Painting: Seascape by Volodymyr Orlovsky, 1885
Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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