by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
When Jen came home from school, she found a woman in the pool in her backyard. At first, as Jen stood at the threshold of the sliding glass door and looked out at the water, metallic in the sun, she thought the woman was a mermaid. But once she got a closer look, she saw that the woman was indeed just a woman stretched out on a pink pool float, a glass of red wine in her hand. Her blood red hair was twisted into a dainty bun atop her head, and she wore a deep blue bikini. The woman’s legs crossed at the ankle, and Jen assumed that this was why she had mistaken her.
“Good afternoon,” the woman said. She pushed her diamond-rimmed sunglasses into her hair. “You must be Jen.”
Jen nodded. She was still clutching her Texas history book to her chest—she’d intended to study in the sun—and she felt young all of a sudden, when she was in fact already a high school junior.
“It’s marvelous to meet you.” The woman sipped her wine. “I’m Mina, as I’m sure you know.”
“What are you doing in my pool?”
“Didn’t your mother tell you? I’m a friend of hers. We met in Greece. I was sure she would have told you I’d be here.”
Jen hadn’t expected her mother home until the evening, when the flight was due to arrive. Her mom had been away on business, a travel retreat for agents, and had given Jen explicit instructions on the tasks she was to complete before eight o’clock. Jen had mostly completed them; she’d shoved her unwashed clothes beneath her bed and piled the book spillover from her bookshelf into the closet, and she’d loaded the dishwasher though she had not rinsed the dishes beforehand. The history homework, which was due tomorrow and which Jen had known about all of last week, was last on the list, and now it seemed as though Jen wouldn’t be able to tell her mother she’d finished it a week ago.
Jen and Mina stood six feet apart, staring, a duel of the eyes. Jen couldn’t stop first. But it wasn’t just that she was stubborn. Mina’s stomach and chest were covered in tiny drops of sweat, but on her body they more resembled the drops of morning dew on the Bluebonnets crowded in the yard. The fingernails on her delicate hands were painted the same red as her hair. As she took another sip of wine and lowered her glass, she smiled a closed mouth smile.
“Where’s my mom?” Jen asked.
Mina grabbed hold of the side of the pool. She set her glass on the smooth rock. The glass rang like a bell. She said that Jen’s mother—though Mina called her Samantha—had wanted Mina to come to Dallas, but there hadn’t been any more space on the flight in from DFW. “Samantha absolutely insisted I catch an earlier flight. She gave me the address and the key, and here I am, talking to you.”
Mina didn’t have an accent; rather her voice boomed like wind through a tunnel. If Mina hadn’t descended into the water, Jen would have knelt to the sound. But Mina no longer spoke. She made her way to the stairs, and as she climbed out of the pool, Jen noticed her back. From her shoulder blades white bone protruded, two round nubs, as if the shoulders had poked through.
Jen forgot her history homework until eight o’clock when her mother arrived back home. Once Mina left the pool she’d excused herself immediately to the bathroom, and as soon as the door clicked shut, Jen heard the water run. Then she heard singing.
There were few words Jen could have used to describe the song. She tried, slumped against the wall outside the bathroom door, to put a word to it. Tried to let her thoughts shape the sounds, but the song made her mind wander. She thought of the ocean, and suddenly she felt a longing for it. She saw herself wading into patches of light, into the crisp foam like her father’s shaving cream.
Thoughts of her father came without warning, of his body in the ocean, ashes on the wind. If she could only follow the voice she would find her father, in whatever paradise he had ended up in. She would’ve stayed outside the door until past her bedtime, until the song stopped, but the creak of the front door interrupted the words, and then her mother’s voice called out: “Jennifer, I’m back!”
Jen stood quickly, and the shower water stopped. She heard the thump of footsteps on the bathroom tile. She ran to the living room where her mother stood over two hard-case bags.
“I brought something for you,” Sam said. Everyone—except, apparently, Mina—called Jen’s mother Sam; sometimes even Jen when she was feeling ironic. Sam unzipped a bag and pulled out a conch shell big as a dinner plate. Jen held out her hand, her skin clammy with anticipation.
“Those can kill,” Mina said from the doorway, where she stood wrapped in a white towel. “The animals inside, they can inject a body with poison. If you’re not careful.”
Jen lowered her hands. She didn’t want the present anymore, and it wasn’t specifically because of the potentially poisonous creature lurking in the folds. Mina’s hair dripped into the carpet, a mess of tangles the color of redwood. The towel cut off at the top of Mina’s thighs, which were bird thin and knobby-kneed but wet with water still, probably warm to the touch.
“I’m so glad you made it,” Sam said. Jen found it odd that her mother didn’t seem to care about the wet footprints on the carpet. She always got onto Jen about drying herself before leaving the tub. “I trust you’ve met my daughter, Jen.”
“We’re old friends.” Mina’s eyes, heavy with thick lashes, winked. Sam dropped the conch, wrapped her arms around Mina’s body, and kissed Mina on the mouth.
That night Jen couldn’t sleep. Outside she heard the dull roar of highway cars, and she thought about the awkward dinner after the kiss, the way Jen knew, even without her mother saying, that she wasn’t allowed to leave the table until she had finished her spaghetti and meatballs and all of her salad drenched in ranch dressing, and that she wasn’t allowed to mention the kiss. There were certain things you didn’t discuss at their table. The death of Jen’s father was one. The kiss, apparently, was another.
Of course she was weirded out, but more than anything she was curious. Mina’s lips looked soft, always wet, and Jen had never kissed lips that looked so good. Her only kisses had been with dry-mouthed boys, nervous and fast, who had yet to learn of pacing. She had never let a boy take off her top or slide his hands into her pants, though a couple had tried.
Now her thoughts raced too wild to sleep. She went to the bathroom and ran the water in the jacuzzi. Her mother and Mina would, she assumed, be sleeping in the other half of the house, whether in the same bed or in separate rooms Jen didn’t really want to know; she felt like the kiss was all she could take. Jen’s father had been rich, an oil man, and Sam had always wanted to live in a house she could get lost in. It was lucky for Jen, as she had two rooms to herself, and at night when Sam slept, Jen had the main areas to explore when she was kept awake by nightmares.
Once the tub filled above the final jet, Jen slipped out of her checkered pajamas and climbed in. The hot water made her skin prickle. She rested her hands across her naked stomach; her own nails were bitten to the quick. Her own touch against her own body brought shivers down her thighs. She turned on the jets.
At first she let her body warm, and once the jets had massaged her feet and back she turned on her side. If she positioned her body in a backwards L the jets at her upper thighs would hit right between her legs. She contorted her body. The muscles in her back stretched. She put both her palms against the hard white plastic, and when the force of the jets was too much to take she clenched her hands into fists. Her jagged nails scraped her palms.
Her stomach felt empty, and she could think of nothing to do to fill it but come and come again. The smell of coconut conditioner overwhelmed the bathroom from Mina’s earlier shower, and Jen imagined she was on a beach and the water was Mina, each wave the shape of her body, each jet the blunt edge of Mina’s hips.
Someone knocked on the door.
Jen jerked, switched the jets off. “Yes?” she called out. No answer. She pulled the drain and wrapped herself in a towel. Drenched with sweat and steam, she could barely breathe.
When she opened the door, she found Mina against the wall. “Didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said. “But I was awake as well, and I wanted to ask if you’d join me at Joe Pool Lake tomorrow after your school. I’m just dying for a swim.”
“Sure,” Jen said.
Back in bed Jen fell into a sleep in which she dreamt of nothing but water. She woke up thirsty. At breakfast she drank down two glasses without so much as a gulp of air.
At Joe Pool Lake, Jen was again taken by thirst. Gazing down at the ripples, she could see herself quiver with each wrinkle of the water. She opened her mouth, and her reflection’s mouth opened.
At the lake the sound of the wind was less comforting than it had been in the car on the way over, perhaps because the stillness made Jen nervous. Mina stood beside her, and even though the lake had always soothed Jen before, now she felt a strange tremor in her hands. A bead of sweat slid down her thigh. Even in a swimsuit, she felt stifled by the heat. Mina fanned herself with the cotton of her own shirt. She sang.
The words were another language, but it didn’t matter. The song was like lights in the dark. Unlike the night before when Jen had heard Mina in the shower, there was no echo here. The water lapped the notes. Jen closed her eyes and imagined Mina’s protruding bones as the base for wings. She imagined they expanded and caught the air and jerked Mina into flight, an unsteady balance.
Jen opened her eyes, and the lake was dancing. The water rolled as an ocean, and the waves that rushed to shore grew stronger, more desperate. The words began to make themselves known. Jen wanted the water, wanted to step into it and disappear beneath its surface. She wanted to drown.
Her feet waded the first few inches. They sunk into the dirt, and she walked farther to keep them from sinking deeper. Her suit grabbed hold of the water, and then came the cold caress between her legs. She could see her father in the lake, suffocating, choking on the waves. The foam circled his head and entered his mouth; his face, death-pale and bloated, spat foam onto the lake’s surface, where it bubbled, burst, and sank like diamonds.
Oh, how beautiful the diamonds were. They sparkled under water, like nothing anyone had ever given her. She dove and opened her eyes and could see them everywhere, too many to hold in her hands. She could still hear the song. It was so beautiful.
And then it stopped.
With the same emptiness in her stomach from the previous night, Jen rose from the lake. Mina kneeled in the dirt before a rock, atop which stood a great grey crane, its wings spread. They were both still. As Jen struggled back to shore, she saw that Mina was crying. Suddenly Mina thrust her hands forward and tried to grasp the bird’s feathers. The crane flew away. In Mina’s hands, a single grey feather remained.
Jen couldn’t help herself; she put her hands to Mina’s face, put her lips to the red streaks where the salt had rubbed Mina’s skin raw. She kissed that skin. She licked the salt from her own lips and felt connected through the burn of salt in her throat. She knew then, just as suddenly as she had known the song, what Mina was.
The English teacher at Jen’s school taught them of siren songs, songs so lovely they destroyed you, of Odysseus binding himself to his ship, a willing prisoner, so he could hear what no man had heard and survived. The teacher told them that the sirens were bird women, but Mina didn’t look like a bird. Not anymore, and Jen wanted to know why. She wanted to know if it was even possible that Mina could be this creature of myth. She wanted to hear Mina say it. On the ride home, once Mina had calmed, Jen asked. “What are you?”
“Not what I used to be,” Mina said. The windows were open, and the loose school papers in the back of Jen’s car rustled about the leather seats. “I used to be something extraordinary.”
“I didn’t know you were real.”
The rest of the ride was quiet. There was little reason for music.
The song came again at midnight; it seeped in through the windows of Jen’s room and filled the pillow beneath her head with hot air. She woke. The trance of the song had little hold. Now it only reminded Jen of Mina’s face marred by tears, bloated and red.
She followed the song to the pool. Mina stood at its edge. At first Jen thought she was alone. Then she saw the chaos of bubbles breaking the still pool surface. Her mother. Jen dove.
Under the water Jen made out the form of her mother’s body, the hair around her head an underwater mane. She was smiling. Jen hadn’t seen her mother look so serene for years, not since the news of Jen’s father’s death, delivered to them at three in the afternoon by an officer at their door: out boating by himself, unsure of the nature of the accident, and was he in any way unhappy with his life? Not that we know of, Jen had said. Her mother stood silent in the background.
Part of Jen didn’t want to disturb her mother, but then the other part of her, the part that wouldn’t know what to do with such a huge home and no family to fill it, grabbed hold of her waist. In the water Sam was light, but once they broke the surface Jen found herself straining against the song; her arms felt as though they might break, but she was able to heave Sam from the water and lay her limp body on the concrete.
Jen didn’t know CPR, but she thought she could imitate what she’d seen in the movies. Her interlaced hands placed on her mother’s chest, she pumped like her hands were a heart all their own, once, twice. She remembered the lips, that she should breathe into her mother’s lips, so she leaned down and breathed a breath into her. Sam reeked of chlorine.
“Stop. You’ll hurt her.” Mina touched Jen’s head, the hair hanging like seaweed. “Let me.”
Mina tilted Sam’s head up with her fingers. She placed her lips over Sam’s and sang into her mouth. Jen pumped. She felt her mother’s body tremor, a shiver that traveled through her skin and up her neck and into her eyes. Finally she coughed the water from her lungs, and Jen rested her hand on Sam’s forehead. Mina scurried to the side, on her face a look of fright, like she didn’t know what she’d done.
Afterwards on the couch Jen untangled her mother’s hair with a comb. They barely spoke, and Mina sat across from them in the cheetah-print couch chair, the only two hints of zest in the brown-and-beige living room décor.
No one said anything about the song.
“I’m sorry,” Mina said. “I didn’t realize.”
But Sam shook her head. Jen looked into Mina’s still startled face and knew she was telling the truth. She didn’t mean to. It just happened that way, like the cold panic Sam sometimes said she felt in the dark of night, like the way Jen’s fingers would often itch to scratch the dull ache of her insides. These were feelings they couldn’t help, couldn’t control, and the song, like some surging hormone, would rear its head again. Now Jen knew to be ready for it. Now she knew that she and her mother, as long as Mina was around, were in constant danger.
The solution came to her in a dream. Again she saw the bones protruding from Mina’s back, and again they trembled. Mina groped her own body, wrapped her arms around her shoulders, but the embrace wouldn’t soothe the pain. She howled like a coyote. The howl, Jen realized, the same melody as her song.
In the morning Jen went to the craft room, a rarely used room at the base of the attic stairs, and searched the dusty shelves. She found the hot glue gun, the glue sticks, spools of wire, a box of hinges and white fabric. Scouring the forgotten scrapbooking materials, she found papers of all different patterns, reams of stickers and lace, but she didn’t find what she looking for. So she went out.
Walking along the sidewalk of her neighborhood, she passed the two-story pseudo-mansions of white rock, landscaped lawns where the walkways had been wetted with sprinkler water. It was still morning, and so the plants had yet to wilt from the swelter. In a few hours the heat would rise from the sidewalk and scald any bare skin that dared to touch.
She made her way out of the neighborhood and into the commercial district, full of mini malls and designer boutiques, Italian restaurants that served overpriced noodles and cream. She passed Starbucks, James Avery, World Market, mostly chains; the people here were less than original. It was a suburb built for shopping, not creating. Jen would have to go a long way to get what she wanted.
An hour of walking led her to the old craft store, an eyesore, and for that reason the sign outside that read Going Out of Business hardly came as a shock. Jen was slightly saddened. She remembered when her father took her here to buy supplies for her first mum, back in middle school. It had been for herself; it was important to show up to Homecoming with an oversized mum pinned to your shirt. At home her father helped her glue stickers and trinkets to the blue and white ribbons, the teddy bear holding a megaphone in the center of the white plastic chrysanthemum.
The mum supplies were gone, with school almost out for summer, and it felt weird to Jen that she would never be able to come buy mum supplies here again, though these days she didn’t bother with Homecoming.
In the mess of leftover sale items, amongst the musty old fabrics, she found a bag of feathers. The man at the front counter didn’t smile as he rang them up, half-off, and told her to have a good day. Like he was forcing her into it.
The walk home was longer, hotter, and by the time she reached the house she was covered in sweat. The air-conditioning froze the sweat to her as soon as she opened the door. She went right to the craft room, and with sticky hands began building the wings. First she molded the wire, leaving two spirals where Mina’s bones would be, so she could clamp them on. She cut the wire where the wings would bend and used the glue gun to attach the wire to the hinges. After that she attached strips of white fabric, and then she glued the feathers to the fabric.
It was a sloppy job, the feathers far apart on the wings, crooked in places, but Jen hoped it was the thought that would count. She ran her hands over the finished product. For what she had to work with, it was a job well done.
Mina hadn’t sung the whole day. Instead she slumped on the couch with the television on, changing the channel repeatedly. Sam had tried to put on some Donovan, but Mina covered her ears. Sam left her alone. Alone was how Jen found her.
“Come outside,” Jen said.
Mina didn’t look up.
“Please come outside. I have something for you.”
“What is it?” Mina said.
“You have to come. I won’t give it to you if you don’t come.”
Without waiting Jen went outside and stood by the side of the pool. The sun was right in the middle of the sky, and it bore down on Jen’s fair skin like scalding water.
She had brought the wings out beforehand, and they lay on a lawn chair, spread in all their glory. Mina took her time coming outside, and the heat made Jen nervous. There wasn’t a sound in the air; it was too hot even for birds.
Without a sound Mina joined her. Jen took her hand, motioned to the wings. Mina let go. She ran her fingers over the feathers, over the wire clamps where her bones would go. She looked directly into the sun.
“I know this one,” Mina said. “You want to destroy me.”
“No I don’t. I want to free you.”
“These won’t fly. I’m no fool.”
Jen shook her head. “I know. But they may help you.”
For a moment Mina looked as if she might break right there beside the pool, and her pieces might tumble in where Jen would have to scoop them out of the skimmer. But then she smiled, and it was a genuine smile, unlike all the others Jen had seen cross Mina’s face. Jen knew this because it twisted her lips and showed all her teeth, even the bottom ones, and its ugliness filled Jen’s stomach with flutters.
When Mina left she took the wings on her back and nothing else. She didn’t ask them to drive her anywhere, just walked out the door and down the sidewalk. Jen and her mom watched her go, and when she disappeared around the corner they turned to each other.
“Want to go to the lake?” Sam asked. They hadn’t been since Jen’s father.
They went. They sunbathed and swam, and neither of them tried to drown. On the ride back home they hummed the siren song together, and even though Jen knew they wouldn’t talk about Mina she felt okay about it. She didn’t think there could be anything to say that they couldn’t get across with their eyes, with the way they would let their laughter echo in the huge living room as they watched late night reruns. They had shared a brief encapsulating darkness, and they knew that if they had to go there again they would come out unscathed, together, and their huge house would never feel as empty again.
Two years later Jen left the house and moved away to college. She studied sculpture, constructed wire pieces of old myths: Zeus as the bull, Persephone descending the underworld stairs, the harpies, and finally the Sirens, the bodies of women with beaks and legs of birds. And, of course, wings.
Her sculptures attracted the attention of several suitors in her classes, among them a girl who loved dressing up. The girl took Jen to a Renaissance Festival. Neither was sure whether or not it was a date, as nothing of the kind had been said. But there, among the pastel fairy wings and the long, elaborate dresses, Jen saw the wings she had crafted. They’d been added to, more feathers and even a couple of bells that rang when you walked, but they were certainly the same wings.
Attached to the wings was Mina. She stood before a crowd of fairgoers, her hair down to her waist, her clothes painted on her body, and she sang. Everyone stood silent and watched, but no one seemed dazed by the song. It wasn’t even the best song Jen had ever heard, but she knew it had been, once in her life—and, suddenly, she was grateful. She stayed until the end, and once the last word had flown from Mina’s lips, the wings on her back twitched. They folded in, and the sun came down on her like a spotlight, but she looked like just another ordinary person, in an ordinary time.
© Copyright 2013 Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam – First appeared at Strange Horizons
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction has appeared in over 70 publications such as Clarkesworld, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror as well as in six languages. Her work has been featured on LeVar Burton’s podcast LeVar Burton Reads. She has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and won the Grand Prize in the SyFy Channel’s Battle the Beast contest; Syfy turned her story set in the world of the Magicians into an animated short. She also curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth.