Siren Call

by David Bowles

As Soledad Ramírez slid behind the wheel of the two-year-old ’63 Ford pickup, she noticed through the cracked windshield that the concave summit of the Cerro de la Silla was shrouded in heavy gray clouds. Her heart skipped a beat as it always did at the thought of rain, and she pushed the groaning door open, dashing back into the ranch house she had called home for nearly thirty years. Inside, her two daughters, anxious to catch the resolution of Thursday’s cliff-hanger episode of the popular soap opera La mentira, were arguing in front of the console TV she’d bought them six years ago for Christmas, its black and white images leaping to clarity and then dissolving into static as the teens maneuvered the rabbit ears.

“I forgot to remind you,” she said breathlessly as they stopped fumbling with the antenna, “not to take a bath today. It’s Good Friday.”

Isabel, whose wedding was only six months away, sighed dramatically. “My God, mother, you told us the same thing yesterday. We understand, already: you’ve been repeating that old wives’ tale to us since we were little!”

Soledad knew that her daughter was about to become a wife and needed to be independent of her mother, but her supercilious tone was still irking. “You know how important this is, girls: you cannot immerse yourselves in water on Thursday or Friday of Holy Week. Don’t make light of it, and don’t get snooty with me when I just have your best interests at heart!”

Renata, the younger of the sisters, grumbled sullenly. “But the town dance is tonight! You mean I have to go without taking a bath? I haven’t been able to all week, and I need to!”

“You don’t ‘have’ to go to the dance at all. Young Alberto could live without seeing you today. But, to answer your question, you’ll just have to wash with a damp rag. No baths; do you understand?”

“But, Mom!”

Soledad wanted to scream in frustration. “Why is it so hard for you to listen to and obey me? Do you want to turn into a fish? Be condemned to spend the rest of your life in the ocean, far from your family? I don’t understand you, Renata. How many times have I told you about Valledupar and the spoiled little girl who disobeyed her parents?”

Renata rolled her eyes. “Tons. She went swimming on Good Thursday and turned into a mermaid. There’s a statue of her. Etcetera, etcetera. I’m not a kid anymore, Mom! I’m fifteen!”

“Your age has nothing to do with it! What, you don’t believe me? You think I made that story up for you? I lived there! I heard the singing when she tried to make me jump into the waters of the Pozo de Hurtado!”

“Mom,” Isabel murmured condescendingly, “you were just a little girl. Maybe you imagined that song, or maybe you heard something else and your brain made it sound like a mermaid singing.”

Soledad’s jaw was clenched with barely bridled anger. Closing her eyes to better focus on the words, she nearly growled at Isabel. “Listen. If you don’t want to believe me, fine. Just make sure your sister doesn’t get near that tub. I’ve got to take groceries to your grandma: I can’t hover over you as if you were little children. Can I trust you to do as I’ve asked?”

Isabel’s eyes widened as she understood how serious the matter was for her mother. “Sure, Mom. Of course. Don’t worry. Give grandma a kiss for us.”

With Renata murmuring in childish discontent at her back, Soledad returned to the truck and began heading toward Monterrey. As the ranch and then the town of Guadalupe shrank behind her, raindrops began to splatter the windshield, leaving behind viscid streaks that latticed the spidering cracks in an ominous moiré. Tightening her hands around the steering wheel, Soledad recoiled from the splashes as if God himself were flinging acid in her direction. She hated water, truly and viscerally despised it. Ever since she had nearly leapt into the waters of the Guatapurí on a Good Friday thirty-two years ago –heedless of her parents’ repeated telling of the story of the Mermaid of Hurtado, entranced by an alien melody–she had grown increasingly wary of the seemingly innocent liquid. It was cruel, water was: it destroyed lives, eroded families into bereft little isles, inundated hearts with despair.

She had first learned of water’s true nature not long after her arrival in Mexico. Her father, who had worked all his life in the Colombian cattle industry, had inherited a ranch in Guadalupe, a small town in the Mexican state of Nuevo León. The transition had been hard for Soledad, even harder than the ocean voyage to her new country. Despite looking superficially similar to Valledupar, a watery valley partially hugged by mountains, Guadalupe was difficult to get accustomed to. Children at school teased her because of her accent and peculiar vocabulary; it took her years to submerge the vallenata Soledad Ramírez in the depths of the new guadalupana version of herself. However, this identity crisis was a trifle next to the loss of her father the day after her tenth birthday. He’d been driving back from Texas, where he had purchased several hundred head of cattle, when a gusty storm had blown up out of nowhere. Visibility had dropped to zero in seconds, and Martín Ramírez had ploughed into an oncoming truck, killing himself nearly instantly.

After two years of mourning, Soledad’s mother had married a widower doctor with two young sons. The five of them had lived a relatively joyful life until Soledad’s stepfather was also claimed by water: his colleagues in the medical profession had assured them that the bacteria that killed Dr. Joaquín Bétancourt were probably ingested with a glass of water that simply hadn’t been correctly treated, but Soledad knew the truth. The water was torturing her, slowly destroying all she came to love.

Only two years later, Soledad had met a ranch hand named Roberto and fallen in love against the wishes of her snobbish mother. When her daughter had insisted on marrying the boy, both of them barely sixteen, Ana Ramírez had made her stepsons the only heirs of the ranch. She hadn’t cut Soledad off completely, however: the new couple had stayed in the guest house, slowly assuming the managerial duties that Ana began to neglect. Finally, upon moving to Monterrey to be free from the rural drudge she’d withstood for so many years, a weary Ana had allowed Soledad and Roberto to remain behind and run things as best they could. And they had worked wonders, bringing the operation to a level of financial success it hadn’t seen in years. A daughter had been born, then another: Soledad had felt free of the tragedies of her past, and a series of dry, nearly drought-like years had withered her phobia into dusty passivity.

But then the heavy rains had come, and Roberto had been pulled into the muddy currents of the overflowing river he was trying to save his cattle from. Water had once more defeated Soledad, and she swore it never would again: she would be on her guard. 

She was not a cowardly woman; in fact, she knew that–like most women–she was stronger than a man could ever be, in the ways that counted. She continued to run the ranch after her husband’s death, and the profit she wrung from the family business was more than enough to put her stepbrothers through college and sustain their wild bachelorhood. Both were now in their thirties, neither worked, and Soledad continued wordlessly to pay them a greater percentage of the ranch’s profits. 

But her daughters awakened in her an obsessive protection. She was deathly afraid of what water might do to them in its bloody-minded determination to break her will. At first, she’d been weak: it had taken little Renata’s nearly slipping wet from Soledad’s arms after being bathed, nearly shattering against the mercilessly hard concrete and tile floor, for Soledad to take the necessary precautions. From then on, the girls always bathed sitting in a tub; the water was allowed to drain completely before she would slide an over-sized towel in and have them stand atop it as she dried them. They never went out when it rained. They never drank water, only juice, aguas frescas and coca-cola, beverages in which water’s natural malevolence had been macerated by other elements. She taught them never to cry, beating them severely if a single tear passed their eyelashes. She did all she could to keep them from sweating, installing one of the first central air conditioning units in Mexico, the only one on a ranch in her entire state, and providing them with every amenity they could ever require so they wouldn’t desire to go out in the torturously hot summer months. The girls never learned to swim and had never even visited the beach. As much as she could, their mother had waterproofed their lives.

Soledad knew she couldn’t keep them safe forever, but she would not have their perdition on her head, would not end up like the parents of Rosario Arciniegas, condemned to grieve all their lives for the daughter they’d lost to the siren call of the miserable waters of the Guatapurí River.

The visit with her mother went as it almost invariably did: poorly. Ana lit into Soledad for not coming by more often, for being oppressively despotic with Isabel and Renata, for not doing more for her brothers. Soledad pretended to listen, but she couldn’t stop thinking that today was the day. Today water would win. The feeling bubbled up from inside her, and as she sweated against her own will, the salty liquid beaded on her skin, kept from evaporating by the heavy humidity. She said her goodbyes and walked back to the truck through a curtain of moisture. The air seemed unable to contain any more water vapor, and Soledad found it difficult to breathe: every inhalation brought the malicious liquid into her lungs. In a panic, she wondered if one could drown in humid air.

Under a blackening sky, she raced back to the ranch, the certainty of her doom spreading like a puddle atop her soul. Fidencio’s car was parked in front of the house: Isabel’s fiancé was paying a visit, meaning that Soledad’s older daughter would not be vigilant with Renata. 

Shoving the door aside brutally, Soledad interrupted the kissing couple with a despairing cry. “Where is Renata, damn you?”

“Uh,” began Isabel, but a muffled splash was all the answer that her mother needed. Racing down the hallway, Soledad banged open the bathroom door to find Renata weeping silently in the soapy bathwater. Protruding grotesquely from one end of the tub was the y-shaped tailfin of a fish. Soledad fell to her knees and slid toward her daughter across the wet tile. Her head spun, and she thought she might vomit. She gripped the porcelain lip of the tub and touched Renata’s forehead with her own.

“Oh, baby!” she whispered.

“Mama, I’m so sorry,” sobbed Renata loudly. “Oh, God, why didn’t I listen to you? I called my friends, and they told me you were crazy, that they took baths all the time on Good Friday and nothing happened to them. And, oh, Mother of God, I believed them and now look at me!”

Isabel and Fidencio were standing horrified at the doorway. Soledad quickly got them to help her lift Renata from the tub onto a pallet of towels she’d laid out on the floor. Fidencio, nervous and embarrassed at seeing his future sister-in-law naked, nearly lost his grip on her mucilage-slick scales; Soledad cursed him roughly, and he bucked up. Soon they’d dried the teen completely, hoping that the strange, unbelievable transformation would somehow be reversed out of the water. But it was to no avail; in fact, being dry caused Renata great pain. 

“Put me back!” she groaned. “Oh, it hurts so bad! Put me back into the tub, please!”

And they did. Over the course of the next week, Soledad tried everything she could think of to wrench her daughter back from the arms of the watery destiny that had claimed her. Remedies she procured from curanderas and santeros, from wizards and healers of all types, but nothing worked. Isabel and Fidencio wanted her to call the authorities, bring doctors, but Soledad refused: science would just view Renata as an aberration and cloister her away as surely as water was attempting to. No, there had to be a better way. 

Renata, in the meantime, seemed to be going stir-crazy. “It’s so boring in here,” the teen kept complaining, so Soledad bought another portable T.V. for the bathroom, as well as rock and roll albums for the phonograph they set up on the sink. But Renata’s desperation went deeper than just a lack of entertainment; she was restless and cramped and easily angered. In addition, she soon began to complain of real physical discomfort: her scales were growing some sort of fungus. Fidencio had the idea of adding salt to the bath water, which seemed to help, but another problem came up: the tub was simply too small. As each cure Soledad tried failed, it became obvious that they’d have to put Renata in a larger container.

Soledad let the ranch hands go, much to their chagrin; some of them had worked more than a decade on the ranch. After she’d sold the cattle off at a suspiciously ridiculous price, she emptied, scrubbed down, and refilled with brine the large cement watering trough that her herd had once used. Here Renata had freedom of movement and began immediately to swim back and forth, almost excited at the new abilities she discovered she had. Soledad felt impotent at the pleasure Renata experienced in the trough: while she wanted her daughter to be happy, she refused to accept a happiness that derived from water’s treachery.

The morning after Renata’s move, awakening from a nightmare in which dark figures had moved in viscous silence, Soledad rushed out to check on her daughter. Not seeing the teen, she began to scream Renata’s name. The metamorphosed adolescent erupted from the depths of the water, sending waves over the edge of the trough and twisting her head about wildly. 

“What? What?”

“Thank God, Renata. You’re okay. When I didn’t see you, I…”

Renata grabbed the lip of the trough and pushed her now naked torso out into the morning air. “Mom, it’s so cool! I can stay underwater as long as I want! I can breathe the water!”

Soledad’s blood froze in her veins. Her impulse to reprimand Renata’s nudity was completely forgotten as the dumb gasping of gill slits on the girl’s neck twisted Soledad’s innards like a harbinger of inevitability.

“And out here, especially at night when I’m down near the bottom, I can hear them much clearer.”

“Hear who?” her mother asked, already knowing the answer, feeling the horror rising like bile in her gorge. 

“You know, them. The others. They say they used to call to you, too, when you were little. They want me to join them. The say we belong with them.” 

Renata’s words ripped a sob from the depths of her mother’s soul. I’m going to lose her. No way to avoid it. The weight of her impotence hunching her over, Soledad rushed to the truck and drove to the parish. She had avoided calling on the priest because, in her pride, she had been determined to solve the problem herself, without God’s help, like she’d done time and again throughout her life. She respected God, feared him, but He was, after all, the creator of water. Hadn’t the Earth originally been a formless ocean, according to Genesis? But now she needed to try. She’d confess, get the priest to come, humble herself: anything to free Renata from water’s amorphous grasp.

Father Vidal Weiss could hardly credit her tale, but he accompanied Soledad to the ranch. When he saw Renata leap like a dolphin in the water, falling back in with a breathtakingly graceful twist and splash, he nearly fainted. He collapsed heavily onto a rock and sat there with his head in his hands, murmuring. Finally, he looked up at Soledad, tears in his eyes.

“My daughter, what can I say? This has to be a miracle.”

“Miracle?” Soledad scoffed. “More like a curse. I told her time and again not to bathe, Father, just like my parents taught me. No bathing on Good Friday. But she wouldn’t listen. No matter how hard I tried to protect her, she just had to do what she wanted.”

After staring uncomprehendingly at the cement trough for several minutes, the priest nodded, his eyes losing their startled glaze. Father Weiss motioned Soledad over, gesturing for her to kneel down in front of him. “Listen to me, Soledad. There is no official prohibition against bathing on Good Friday. It’s simply a sign of respect that many believers have blown up into a folkloric injunction. No, I don’t think this metamorphosis was caused by disobedience,” the priest looked at her sadly, his lips parting slowly as if reluctant to cast judgment on her. “No, Soledad: it was caused by your obsession. I’ve heard your confessions for ten years now, child. I have begged you to turn this fear over to our Lord, but you’ve stubbornly clung to it. Your own hatred of water and stubborn pride has brought this tragedy about.”

Soledad said nothing as she drove the priest back to the moldy church amid his promises to contact the archbishop and even Rome in search of an answer. While she appreciated his efforts, she knew with sudden surety that he was fundamentally wrong: her daughter’s change had been effected by an act of disobedience. Her own. The truth was so clear now: Soledad had disobeyed the call, had ignored it and feared it, had taught her children to eschew it. Renata’s new existence was the price of that defiance.

On each of the following three days, Soledad noticed how distant Renata grew, how she stayed under the surface for hours at a time, listening, or clinging to the rim of the trough, staring wistfully in the direction of the sea. Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, from the girl’s lips a haunting song began to burble, as if she were answering her distant cousins in their own tongue. Once the echoes of her finished lay had died like ripples on the air, Renata turned alien eyes on her mother. 

“They sing of their ancient sisters, of princely men they left the glassy deep for, of daughters who have never come home. They’re calling us, Mom. Can’t you hear them?”

Soledad’s heart sundered beneath the weight of her complicity in Renata’s ruin, but she did not falter. She knew now what she had to do.

Onto one of the trailers used for hauling cattle she placed the porcelain tub and filled it with water. Then she called to her daughter, standing on the stone steps that led up one side of the trough. Plunging her arms into the water with a shudder, Soledad managed to pull her daughter from the water and, her muscles burning with every step, walk her down to the tub.

“Are we…?” began Renata, gesturing hopefully eastward as her mother slid her into the gleaming white porcelain.

“Yes, my love. Just relax. It’ll be a few hours.”

Sobbing the whole way, finally surrendering to the traitorous water that made up most of her body, letting the tears drip down onto her slowly drying clothes, Soledad drove her daughter to a beach near Tampico. The sun was already setting in a miasma of purple and pink fretted with gold, and in the distance, silhouetted against the reddish ball, mother and daughter saw shapes leaping from the waves. 

Soledad had backed the trailer all the way into the shoals, and she now waded into the water to unhinge the door and help Renata out. For a brief moment, they embraced amid caressing swells, and Soledad gave her daughter a final kiss on the forehead.

“Be happy, Renata, whatever happens. I release you. Find your way as best you can.”  And her daughter slipped from her arms and rocketed toward her new family in the unknowable depths.

Over the next year, Soledad’s dreams gradually filled with the shifting, clinquant light of the sun as reflected through the monochrome stained-glass of the ocean’s surface. Each night she dreamt that Renata was calling her, singing that ancient melody that had caused so much fear in Colombia decades ago. The song grew louder and louder, its meaning so tantalizingly close to being clear, until nearly a year after Renata’s departure, Soledad knew the time for surrender had come. Isabel was married, her brothers engaged, her mother content. There was nothing holding her anymore now that her fear was gone. 

The flight to Colombia took her over a long stretch of ocean along the Central American coast. As she looked out the window at that gorgeous expanse of blue-green, she marveled that she had ever hated it. She understood now that both she and the priest had been wrong. Neither hate nor disobedience had caused Renata’s transformation: it had simply been her destiny. There was nothing shameful or cruel about it at all. 

Standing upon a boulder in the morning chill of Good Friday, Soledad slowly pulled her dress over her head and stripped her undergarments away. Far off, she heard her daughter calling her, a clear, beautiful song older than the river itself. The eldritch tones, flitting between notes on the human scale like gemmed fins among the waves, crystallized in meaning for her. 

Come. Come home. Come to the shadowy green depths of your ancestors’ home. Come home to the coral-festooned caves, to the secret currents of warmth far from the wavering sun. Come to me, mother. Come home. Come. 

Taking a final look at the Pozo of Hurtado before her, Soledad closed her eyes, lifted her arms–dry for the very last time–and leapt headfirst into her own much-delayed fate. 

© Copyright David Bowles

David Bowles is a Mexican-American author and translator from south Texas. Among his two dozen books are A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, Chupacabra Vengeance, Rise of the Halfling King and the forthcoming graphic novel series Clockwork Curandera. His work has also been published in venues such as The New York Times, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and Rattle, Translation Review.

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