In my twelfth year, our household was joined by a governess, Ms. Bradshaw, who would tutor me on subjects deemed crucial to a child of my class and gender. Beyond some elementary mathematics, there was no place for the sciences in my curriculum; for that, I would be forced to self-educate. No, I would instead learn etiquette, social grace, and the banal rites of polite society.
I despised these lessons, and every new rule or ritual – the manners of self-control; awareness of social position; which fork was reserved for dessert – were designed to erode my identity until nothing remained but an elegant husk. Aimless days blurred together to resemble the gray monotony of Purgatory. I was dead, a ghost and her walking corpse, waiting for the chance to live again.
Our aestival retreat no longer offered the same respite as it had before. I found myself bound to new and restrictive expectations. It was not ‘ladylike’ to explore the coast, its sea caves and tidal pools – those rare places that soothed my fragile constitution and lulled melancholy to a tolerable repose. Ms. Bradshaw paid close attention to my activities; like Father’s stalking valet, she had become my shadow, and I was forbidden from venturing beyond the estate unchaperoned. There was no way to live as I truly desired; nay, not merely desired, but a manner essential to my survival.
My family endeavored to break me of my habits – to destroy me, and shape the remnant pieces into the perfect gentlewoman. If they wished to fashion me into their dreamless doll, I would choose to be like an effigy and burn.
Even with my mind lost in the fog of despair, there was no escape from the springtide of life. Adolescence, no doubt an exciting phase for many, only seemed to amplify my frustrations. Mother had finally begun to take notice of me. Some souls, desperate for recognition, will not discriminate between love or animosity. It was not long before I yearned for the return of her characteristic neglect.
Mother descended from nobility, a fallen house, and married Father in a bid to retain her lavish lifestyle. Inheriting her ancestors’ malignant pride, she turned her nose up at him and other members of the nouveau riche. An interminable hypocrite, Mother’s disdain for Father’s inferior pedigree never prevented her from squandering his wealth on frivolities.
Her lust for worldly possessions typically gravitated to Parisian gowns, fine furs, diamond rings, and strings of pearl – each a ceremonial object in her cult of self-worship. This vile sect held power in our household, mainly manifesting itself as an overabundance of mirrors and a constant air of condescension. Father was among the faithful and indulged her every whim.
She ridiculed my appearance. My body was too thin, my face too angular. She derisively questioned how she birthed someone so unlike her, placing blame on my father’s common blood. Of course, it was an exaggeration meant only to hurt me, but it was not inherently untrue, sharing little to no resemblance. I took almost entirely after my father. Not that any of that matters. We are all bound by the chains of pangenesis, but I am no more tethered to the most recent coupling as I am to the eldest link.
In response to this oppressive atmosphere, I turned to books. Neither of my parents could be described as active readers; thus, some Lamarckian mechanism cannot explain my seemingly innate bibliophilia. It is probable that, as a solitary child deprived of friends or siblings, I simply lacked other means in which to occupy myself. My favorite subject was biology, which was in many ways still in its infancy.
Despite his blatant disinterest in literature, Father maintained a library at both residences. After all, books symbolized status and presented the owner as possessing vast knowledge and a keen intellect. As trade was his only acumen, his intellectual curiosity did not expand beyond new and improved methods of profit maximization.
At our summer abode, the library contained specific singular titles that would never be found in the frugal bulk purchases my father preferred. At our primary residence, the collection was, if not famous, then at least recognizable—encyclopedias, dictionaries, poetry, and prose; authors whose works were known to even the illiterate.
But not here.
A sizable portion of this library had been left by the previous occupants, a family whose bloodline had since dwindled into obscurity. Whoever they were, their selection betrayed interests both scientific and esoteric, with topics ranging from forgotten Pagan gods and rituals to heterodox theories of abiogenesis. I would lose myself in those pages, finding a fleeting, artificial means to transcend the mundane. The more forbidden the subject matter appeared, the greater my curiosity. Much of it was handwritten, lacking any indication of formal publication. A number were foreign, and while I was able to identify Greek, Latin, Irish, and Welsh, others were unfamiliar. For too many years, I had been deprived; knowledge starved, my appetite had grown voracious. Many of these age-worn tomes were ultimately beyond my comprehension, and it would be decades before their full impact came to fruition.
I retained access to the widow’s walk, where I would excuse myself to watch the sunset. Of course, I was not there for the sun, nor the moon and stars, for my interest, my obsession, was strictly worldly. The heavens could wait, for I sought the electric blue and amber lights of vagabond merrows – of my solitary, long yearned companion.
Virtually a prisoner in my own domain, I satisfied my need to explore within Caeruchel Hall itself. The estate had undergone numerous incarnations throughout its existence. The ordered grandeur of its Neo-classical architecture succeeded the Stuart period’s simplicity, which replaced a grim and austere Tudor castle. Evidence for this process of destruction and reconstruction extends as far back as the 1st century to a Roman fortress whose brickwork still stands as the manor’s foundation. Only those long-dead legionnaires know what came before, but I do not doubt that the Demetre or Silures made effective use of this land before their subjugation.
This history of consistent occupation had a perfectly logical explanation. The horizon was wholly visible in every direction due to its high elevation; the ocean surrounded the estate on three of four sides, while unscalable cliffsides prevented access from the shore, save a single narrow path. Thanks to these and other geographical features, it was the most naturally defensible location in the region.
There is one place older than the foundation, a place so genuinely ancient that any speculation regarding its age was pointless.
It was discovered by accident while hiding in the basement, doing my best to avoid Ms. Bradshaw and her vacuous lessons. Lantern in hand and my afternoon reclaimed, I spent the time in search of the skittering vermin that so naturally congregated in the damp and inky blackness. Cobwebs formed congruous patterns across the ceiling, merging the silken works of many a spider. I remember how it twinkled before my light, its surface bejeweled by drops of moisture that no doubt lured prey as diamonds would a thief. At the far end of the chamber, behind the furthest cask, the web grew dense and layered, littered with the desiccated remains of winged insects better suited for the wide outdoors than a lightless cellar. Spiders are of an inherently unsociable disposition, and I wondered what could have drawn them so close. Intrigued, I brushed aside the web and forced my way through.
Beyond that viscid threshold was a wall, ordinary and expected, save for the presence of a vertical fissure. Despite its advanced state of deterioration, the structure was relatively modern compared to the rest. It was undoubtedly the stonework of an amateur, someone other than the master masons responsible for Caeruchel Hall, or any of its past incarnations, and one strong push was all it took to send it toppling.
When the dust finally settled, my light revealed a stairwell. After a period of hesitation, I swallowed my fear and descended its stone-carved steps. The spiraling passage delivered me to a labyrinthine network of megalithic tunnels. Underground structures could be found throughout the world, and Britain was no exception; medieval crypts, Anglo-Saxon barrows, and even Roman Mithraea were hidden across the Isles.
Eons ago, a cult carved this complex from solid bedrock. The walls bore singular engravings – pictograms, possibly even hieroglyphics – which failed to coincide with any known culture. I could only imagine that these were the creations of some forgotten Celtic tribe, or perhaps a people who came long before them – a people who remain unknown to the historians and archaeologists of our age. These depictions ranged from the familiar, such as waves, fish, rain, and whales, to the utterly abstract, if not downright alien. Abstruse as they were, these symbols and their configuration invoked a particular aesthetic or theme – one that, like the songs of the merrows, seem to embody all things thalassic.
Though devoid of life, these ruins were not silent. There had been a faint droning since the moment of my arrival, and the volume only amplified the deeper I traveled. By the time I recognized the steady burble of moving water, I had already reached its source, where a confluence of subterranean tributaries fed into a large central basin. Steam emanated off the surface of the water; I knelt at the edge of the pool and dipped a finger, finding it warm to the touch, fortunately not scalding. Before me was a geothermal spring and grotto; how much of it was a product of nature or human artifice, I cannot say, but what I did know was that this was a sacred place.
Five monoliths encircled the basin like the outstretched fingers of a buried giant. Jutting from the center of the pool was a statue depicting a menacing amalgamation of serpent, octopus, fish, and woman. The chimeric goddess displayed the plump breasts and distended abdomen of late pregnancy, leaving little doubt of an association with fertility. It had a head like a devil-fish, particularly Melanocetus johnsonii – a hideous species known for its enormous mouth of needle-like fangs and bait-like head appendage. A pair of large pearls had been set within the shallow gouges that constituted its eye sockets. Long, sharp spikes protruded from the shoulders and back like the spines of a sea-urchin. The lower-half was an anarchic skein of snakes and tentacles with a strangely chitinous texture.
I stared in awe, in horror, so great and terrible were the gods of old.
Mother Ocean, Her Undulating Vastness.
Low on kerosene, I retraced my steps and returned to the manor. I told no one of these ruins and hid the entrance through the strategic arrangement of wine racks. As I wrote before, this was a sacred place, and I would not have it profaned. It would become my lifelong sanctuary, my truest refuge from civilization. Ms. Bradshaw would berate me for my sudden and inexplicable absence but was otherwise ignorant of my whereabouts.
I was desperate to know more. As the village was forbidden to me, I turned to the single local in my family’s employ. I knew nothing about our groundskeeper, save that he spent most of his life here. Shy and lacking my parents’ gift of gab, I could not bring myself to approach a man who was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger.
Instead, I wrote a letter with a series of questions – about the town, its history, how it connected to the merrows (my actual wording was subtler), as well as directions to a particular rock, beneath which he could deliver his response. Looking back, I can see how comically elaborate it was, but such was my nature. I placed it and a few sovereigns for his troubles at his doorstep and would check my impromptu drop-off every day, impatiently awaiting his answers. I began to consider the possibility that he was illiterate, like most men in the village, but I received his response after a week. Beneath the stone, I found my coins returned, along with my original letter; written on the back was a simple, straightforward response:
The groundskeeper was literate, at least partly, but wanted nothing to do with this bargain. I watched him tend the garden, where he kept his head down and avoided my gaze. I was confused, seething even, for it never occurred that he would actively decline – primarily due to my parentage. This sense of dismay revealed that more of Mother’s haughtiness lurked inside me than I ever wanted to admit.
If he would not tell me, then it was doubtful that others were willing to divulge the truth.
As I neared marriageable age, Mother organized the visitation and courtship of several suitors. She often insinuated that the bloodline would end with me if left to my own devices. Admittedly, she was not wrong. My boldness outdoors did not translate to socialization, and I was terribly shy, barely speaking more than a few words.
But do not mistake diffidence for bashful simpering. I felt nothing for these men.
It became apparent that these suitors weren’t invited for my benefit alone. Mother would parade herself through the parlor and devise excuses to join us. I saw how she positioned herself, how it would further exaggerate her natural curvaceousness. She knew how to look at them, how to smile and laugh, and when to be coquettish or coy. Her ego bloomed as she feasted on their adoration.
I do not pretend to understand the reasons for her endless cruelty. At the cusp of my development, time would begin to take its toll on the woman to which it had previously been so kind, but envy was not to blame. She had always been this way, her methods adapting to my changing body, mind, and social expectations.
It was instinct, a psychic form of filial cannibalism, like beasts which consume their brood at the first sign of weakness. Mother was one of those predatory humans; who she hurt was inconsequential – whatever she desired, she got.
This was my life up until the Summer of 1873. There was undoubtedly more to it than what I’ve described but nothing worthy of elaboration. I was by this time free of Ms. Bradshaw, who had fulfilled her contractual obligations a month before and left our home without fanfare or farewells. I do not know how common it is for a governess to feel fondness towards her ward, but there was certainly no love to lose between us. In retrospect, I can see that I did not make her work any less painless. One might imagine that I would have sought to extract some sliver of affection – to find in Ms. Bradshaw a maternal surrogate. But no, I simply regarded her as an extension of Mother’s will, if I regarded her at all.
It is a pity when tutelage merely distracts from one’s true vocation. My governess was but an obstacle, though through no fault of her own.
Our ride to the coast that year was memorably intolerable. Father had business to attend to and would be delayed a few days. Without him as a buffer, Mother was free to focus all of her scathing ire on me. There was a short-lived period when I strived to be the debutante I thought she always wanted. Indeed, I was foolish enough to believe that I could earn her affection, or at least her respect, through imitation; that she would see something of herself in me, as for her, there was no other so beloved. Mimicry merely served to illustrate the differences between us; in despair, I returned to the quiet defiance that had always characterized our relationship.
I gazed longingly at the coast as we neared Caeruchel Hall. There, along the water’s edge, were rocks stacked in tight formations and laden with oblations that glistened beneath the Summer sun. These were the harbingers – the merrows had returned.
Upon our arrival, I kicked off my shoes and practically leaped from the carriage. I ignored Mother’s shouts and ran down the hill, across the emerald headland, along the narrow path, and to the stony shore. Foolish in my excitement, I failed to reckon the hours remaining between then and sunset. Already weary from the daylong journey, all that running rapidly exhausted what little vigor I had. Slumping beside a boulder, I slipped into a sweet torpor as the placid tide lulled me to sleep.
My mind’s eye conceived, or instead found itself impressed with, a double flash of white and scarlet. Not until later did I understand that my state of unconsciousness had shifted from slumber to one born of savage trauma. When I recovered, I found myself face down in a pool of my own coagulated blood, my hands tied behind me. After some struggle, I successfully rolled on to my back. Though the sun had yet to wholly set, the moon, full and silver bright, heralded the coming night. What began as fragmented senses – the feel of damp wood against my skin, the reek of old fish and inferior tobacco, the noise of quarreling Welshmen, the throbbing pain within my skull – came together piece by piece. I raised my head and stared blankly, terrified as my dread surmise was realized.
I had been struck by a stone or club or some other object – I do not know, nor does it matter. Neither can I say if my assault was an act of opportunity or one premeditated with grim intention. Once senseless, I was taken aboard a skiff. Two strangers, presumably fishermen, manned the oars while at the bow, facing my direction, was the groundskeeper.
It was pointless to scream; I was gagged, and besides, we were far from the coast, far from any who might take pity. I lay there, still as the dead, virtually invisible beneath the groundskeeper’s moonlight shadow. He spoke to me, or rather at me, as I do not believe him aware of my return to consciousness.
In between his litany of chants, prayers, and ancient invocations, were apologies. Solemn, sincere, but not too mournful; the words of a man who had experienced a lifetime of necessary evils and yet never grew utterly numb to the deed. He said I knew too much; that what he intended was without joy or malice; better an outsider than yet another of their own.
Just one life, he said—just one life to ensure the survival and prosperity of Craigwen. When the oarsmen ceased their rowing, the groundskeeper lifted a crwth and bow from his lap, primed the instrument against his chest, and began to play. These sounds were neither hideous nor elegant, though they bore a singular assonance that deviated from the region’s traditional folk music. He called out to the sea, and the sea called back in an immaculate chorus to herald their arrival.
I was grabbed by one of the oarsmen, a heavy-handed brute who stank of ale; no doubt a bit of liquid courage before the deed. Despite his muscular physique, he grunted and labored to move me. Then I noticed what all his struggling was about; the same ropes that bound me had been additionally tethered to several hefty stones. What they intended was now clear. I was to be sacrificed – to drown or be devoured – and the villagers weren’t taking any chances.
This had always been their way. A tried and true method, learned from their fathers, as their fathers learned from theirs.
I gazed into the water. The sea was full of light and song, a beauty so mesmerizing, so utterly transcendent, that few would ever recognize it for the predatory lure it was – not before the trap had sprung. And the colors! Gold and violet, turquoise and indigo – sprawling, cascading, and vibrating to the rhythm of their ancient rime.
Rolling my wrists, I successfully loosened the rope and freed my hands, just as the brute heaved me over his shoulder and prepared to toss me overboard. I hastily hoisted one of my intended anchors and tightly grasped the stone with both hands; with the hysterical strength that accompanies the will to survive, I drove it into the his head. The giant’s skull caved with a sickening crack, splattering blood and brain as his lifeless body crumpled where he stood.
The groundskeeper was blind to my actions, his conscious mind lost to the frenzied playing of his crwth.
But the remaining oarsman was soon upon me. Before I could react, the shaft of his paddle was pressed against my throat as he tried to force me overboard. I held on to the hull, but my stubborn refusal to release my grip, faced with my attacker’s superior size and strength, caused my left arm to violently dislocate from its socket. In his moon-lit eyes, I beheld terror of an order beyond that even I, his intended victim, could understand. What did he know? What had he seen?
My attacker put aside his oar and squatted over my limp, defeated body. He mouthed a few words, but all I heard was the hundred voice chorus and the groundskeeper’s screaming crwth. Then he calmly pushed my head beneath the surface of the water. With my strength gone and my will broken, I could do nothing but look on in dismay.
There was no darkness, for the sea was ablaze with the luminescent flesh of oscillating ophidian forms. Golden spots, ethereal blue-green ribbons – like the fire of rare falling stars – and suddenly, splashes of crimson, a torrent of blood as the mangled bodies of men hit the water. The calloused hands that so tightly held me released their grip and floated away, severed and trailed by streaming clouds of maroon.
It was a feeding frenzy, and I was trapped in the eye of a storm made from teeth and claws and bone and viscera as the merrows tore those men apart. Still wracked by pain, my frayed nerves sent my body into shock. I fell once again into a state of unconsciousness, mercifully spared from that visage of hell before me.
I awoke in my own bed. Mrs. Kelly had found me on the shore that morning. She and the other servants brought me home where I was bathed, dressed, and received rudimentary care. Though still bruised and sore, I was relieved to find that functionality had returned to my left arm. My head had been bandaged, but the wound was severe enough to require professional medical treatment, and an electric telegraph was sent for my physician. My discovery was entirely by chance. Mother either failed to notice my absence or simply did not care enough to even delegate a search. Though I required significant stitchwork, my recovery was without incident.
Still, the scars remain.
Despite the trauma I endured, my thoughts quickly turned to Muirgein. This was my chance to find her after more than half a decade of waiting. When Father arrived a few days later, he was distressed by the state he saw me in. Displaying unexpected concern for my well-being, he forbade me from leaving Caeruchel, an opinion shared by the visiting physician, and ordered the servants to keep watch to prevent me from getting myself into further trouble.
I never told them what happened. Even if I omitted the merrows from my account, I doubt they would’ve believed me. I had no desire to complicate things further. For all they knew, I had slipped on a wet stone and hit my head. As it occurred soon after our arrival, no connection could be made between my apparent accident and the disappearance of our groundskeeper. Father assumed he quit or died of natural causes, as he was already of reasonably advanced age.
As demanded, I remained indoors; an uncharacteristic behavior considering my history of nightly escapades. The realization came to me slowly, but it grew increasingly clear that there was more to my trepidation than worry over parental disapproval. Their threats were toothless – idle and easy to ignore. As their only child, it was not as if they would condemn me to a nunnery.
Almost murdered, I had returned from the sea haunted, and death was my familiar. I also witnessed the end of three lives – one conceivably by my hand. And though it all transpired in a blur of shapes and colors, perceived through barely cognizant eyes, a troubling, albeit not entirely unsuspected truth was confirmed.
Imagine a child living on a farm. Too young to partake in their family’s labors, they might instead seek companionship among the domestic beasts, blissfully unaware that these animals were destined for the butcher’s block and kitchen table. Muirgein and I were young when we met. Too innocent to comprehend our true natures, I wondered whether she would see me as a friend or food.
These frightful thoughts gnawed their way to the forefront of my mind. There they embedded themselves – feeding on my sanity and breeding increasingly complex, ever conflicting emotions. Wracked with dissonance, I sought the serenity of my darkened grotto. I brought my lantern, though my visits had grown so frequent that there was little need for light to guide my way. Others might consider it strange to find tranquility among such deep and hidden corners of the Earth, but I did.
I stripped down, discarding the trappings of humanity, and lowered myself into the primordial pool. The warm water embraced me like an old friend, and I had to fight the urge to let it take me forever – not yet aware that to drown in her waters is but to change. My sense of self became vaporous as the balmy mist, and I no longer knew where my body ended and where the water began.
My concentrative idol, the pearl-eyed goddess, stared back at me. I closed my eyes, inhaled the sibylline fumes, and entered an intoxicating reverie. Words poured from my mouth, gibberish at first, but I soon found myself singing. The lyrics escape me now, but I was certainly no prima donna; I was loud, hysterical even, as I unburdened myself of those accumulating emotions. I wailed and crooned, though I have no idea for how long; time was meaningless – nothing existed beyond my sacred grotto.
That night, I would be the siren.