Siren Song by Allison Hymas
The first ocean wave of the year came late past midnight on March twenty-fourth. It shook the foundations of Seaside, Nebraska’s small courthouse, flooded the dance clubs and late-night diners, and broke over sleeping bodies before ebbing and returning to the black abyss it came from. Its white foam hissed of freedom and fear, of adventure and apprehension, before fading into the morning and the clean day.
Even as they dreamed, the garbage men and gardeners knew they’d wake to a job of shoveling up kelp and replacing flowers damaged by salt water. Mothers jumped out of bed in the early morning and rushed to the sides of their sleeping sons. They bit their lips, knowing that their hold on their children was broken. Those old enough to hear the call would not stay for long.
I slept dreamlessly, but when I woke my cheeks were wet with salt water. I had begged this day not to come, even offering to give up the new Volkswagen Beetle I knew I was getting as my high school graduation present. I’d walk everywhere until I was thirty if Dan wouldn’t be taken from me.
When I ran down to the kitchen, Mom looked at me sadly. “I’m so sorry, Monica,” she said. She knew how it felt to watch a loved one slowly drift away from sad experience. The wave called my dad when I was six. My father never came back. No one who left ever came back, or sent word of where they had gone.
Mom had told me that the day the wave came for my father, our house had been washed clean by the sea. Today, though, the kitchen and living room looked exactly the same as always. There were no men here to call.
Dan’s house, however, sparkled like new. Everything, from the mailbox Dan had hit when learning to drive to the “Welcome, Friends” mat by the door, had been polished by the sea and still carried a weedy, briny smell. Even Dan seemed new; I found him sitting on the porch steps, holding a conch shell in his hands. His eyes, gray and distant, swirled with waves, and when I sat beside him and draped my arm across his back, I felt that the once-gentle tick-tock of his heartbeat had become the timpani roll of the sea.
“It came last night,” he muttered, turning the shell over in his hands.
Dan shifted his weight, and I noticed his feet tapping frantically against the concrete walk. His restlessness blew around him like an ocean breeze, ruffling my hair.
“I won’t go,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“I do,” I said, but the words were empty and we both knew it. From the window Dan’s mother watched us, her face pale. Dan’s older brother had also had a girlfriend, had also promised not to leave, but he was gone on the next tide like so many other young men.
“I mean it,” Dan said, taking my hands in his. “I’m going to stay. It happens, right?”
His hands were shaking. I nodded. “We should go to school.”
Dan bit his lip, but dropped my hands and went inside for his bag. I stood, brushing sand off my skirt.
At school, it was easy to see who had been called. They walked from class to class with dreamy expressions on their faces, and restless breezes that smelled of seaweed fluttered the pages of their textbooks. The most far gone had a light like green fire in their eyes.
Scott Trimble, the midfielder on Dan’s soccer team, had changed the most. He’d been one who didn’t know what he would do after high school. “Seriously, I’m not that good an athlete,” he told Dan and me after a game one Saturday. “I can’t expect a scholarship to college, but I don’t want to stay here and work for my dad either.”
Now he wandered through the halls with his witch-fire eyes locked on something we could not see, a deliriously happy smile curving his lips. As he passed me, I heard ethereal music trailing in his wake. It was a sweet sound that reminded me of mystery and blue corpse lips, and it has haunted my dreams every night since.
Another boy, Matt Markhelm, quietly poured the sand out of his shoes and crept down the halls, his face strained with a fugitive’s anxiety. “I don’t want to go,” I heard him muttering to his desk during study hall. “You can’t make me go. I won’t go.” He had always been the one with the most school spirit, the one who knew all of Seaside’s history. I thought he’d be one of the men who never heard the call.
The lucky girls laughed and tossed their hair, safe in the knowledge that the boys they cared about breathed in the scent of warm, dry grass from the fields instead of the foreign tang of sea salt. The rest of us shivered and gripped our boyfriends’ hands with white knuckles.
During lunch, Dan would laugh about my fear. “I couldn’t leave, even if I wanted to, they way you’re hanging on to me,” he joked, shaking our clasped hands in front of my face. “Not that I want to.” He kissed me and brushed my hair from my eyes.
He must not have noticed how his eyes, and the eyes of half the males in the senior class, roved the room like a lighthouse’s beam, searching desperately for something we couldn’t give them. But we noticed.
As the days passed, Dan grew more and more distant. He would forget our dates and ignore my phone calls. When I looked for him, I would find him balanced on the high branches of a tree, staring into the sky with those distant eyes, or dropping stones in a pond and watching the ripples spread over the water.
Every time I found him, he’d blink and smile, then say, “I barely feel it anymore. Don’t worry.”
Dan wouldn’t tell me what it felt like, but that didn’t stop me from wondering. Was it like the tugging, aching sensation I felt when I first looked at the Volkswagen in the car lot, or was it something deeper? Something like hunger or thirst, prickling and primal, that forced obedience and ripped other choices away.
Tension grew all over town as the young men who’d been called withdrew from their classes and jobs, their friends and family. Scott let himself drift, skipping school often to spend hours beside the stream that passed beside the nearest cornfields. One day when he came to school, his hair stood up spiked, stiff with salt, and we knew that he would leave on the next tide.
Matt, on the other hand, took a job at the diner. And then another, babysitting for the young mothers who had years to go before the wave would call their little boys. He anchored himself to this town he’d known his whole life, and to Kylie, his girlfriend of three years. Kylie told me, in class, that Matt and she had a plan to keep him from leaving, by force if necessary. She talked about a sale at the hardware store on rope and padlocks. Girls all over town were making similar plans, trying to keep their men at home.
My mom had tried the same, as had many of her friends. The bravest efforts to bind the men, even if the men agreed to them, have never worked in Seaside. Not if the men truly wanted to leave. Matt, though, would stay. I knew it. There were always a few who could manage to resist the wave’s call, and although the smell of salt clung to him like wet sand, I knew he would still be here when the wave carried the rest away.
As for Dan, every day the smell of brine hung in the air over his house and a new shell sat on the porch. As he got ready for school, and I waited outside—he was much slower since the wave—I’d hold the shell to my ear and listen to the roar of the ocean that echoed the rushing in Dan’s chest. Sometimes, I thought I could feel that roar quaking my own blood. But my skin never burned with the longing to follow the sound out of the Midwest to a dark and mysterious sea.
“I don’t understand it,” I told him during graduation practice; I never found him outside of school anymore, no matter how hard I looked. “What is so powerful it would make you leave Seaside? You family? Your home? Me?”
His dark hair sparked in the sunlight, reminding me of summers spent biking around town and hiding in corn fields we weren’t allowed to play in. I waited, aching, for the Dan I knew then to smile, hold my hand, and say that nothing would take him away. But he just shrugged and looked at me with unfocused eyes, and my hopes melted.
“I can’t come with you,” I said into his silence. The barrier between us was as hard as coral and as cold as an iceberg.
“I know,” he said. And then he looked into the sun with such longing that the wind that swirled around him stung my eyes, bringing salt tears.
All over town, women felt the slip of time. Mothers and sisters, girlfriends and friends paled and whispered words like “stay” and “I’m here” and “be content.” Fathers who had been passed over sat with their sons and tried to understand. Young men—those who hadn’t been called—wandered baseball fields and arcades alone, wondered where their friends had gone. The pleas to stay grew more urgent as graduation came and went and summer began. We knew no one had ever come home after leaving to chase the wave. “Goodbye” would be the final goodbye. I felt like I had lost Dan’s love to another, vastly more beautiful and exotic woman.
That night I dreamed Dan was skimming over leaping waves, hurtling farther and farther away from where I cried on a beach, while the air sang with the mysterious music that followed Scott.
Summer came. The whole town could feel the rush of a large wave drawing back, preparing to break. Parents tensed, knowing it was almost here.
One day in mid-July, I escaped the sorrowful eyes of my mother to wander the town, alone. Dan had receded from my life, leaving a sucking hole. I’d gone to his house that morning, but his mother had turned me away at the door, her eyes red. Either Dan wasn’t there or he didn’t want to talk to me. But he didn’t need to talk to me; his silence was that of the ocean he’d chosen.
I wandered into one of Seaside’s corn fields, where Dan and I used to go together. The summer air was warm and dry on my skin. It smelled like dirt and ripe hay and made the corn ripple from green to gold and back again. I sat between the rows, far away from the noise of the town, and rested my head on my knees.
With the wind rattling the stalks around me, I closed my eyes and looked into the midnight the waves emerged from. I searched for whatever voice called Dan away from me, and heard nothing. I wanted to feel the call, wanted to smell salt on my skin and feel sand between my toes like the men did. If I could hear the call and felt the same tug, maybe when the time came for Dan to leave, I could go, too.
But, although I tried until the shadows grew long and I cried with frustration, all I smelled was sunscreen, and all I felt was dust and rigid stalks.
That night, at midnight, the second wave of the year broke. And Dan and many of the other young men of Seaside raised their sails and rode it into the night.
© Allison Hymas
Allison Hymas is from Pennsylvania, where her love of the ocean was fed by regular trips to the Shore. She loves traveling and incorporating her travels into her writing. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Some of Allison’s poetry has been published in FLARE: The Flagler Review and in Sassafras.
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