by Carlos Hernandez and C. S. E. Cooney
From the Monograph Sirenas of Garganta by Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes, Doctora de Filosofia Naturál
They are gigantic. We could not see sirenas because they are gigantic!
Too long have our imaginations been limited by sea shanties that portrayed sirenas as lusty, acid-tongued wenches who (how?) learned to speak flawless Mariposan while underwater; or else sly anthropovores whose songs make thralls of concupiscent mariners; or any other myth that characterizes them as anything resembling us.
They are not like us. So that I, Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes, do not die in vain, understand this: they are not human. They are as different from humans as the butterfly is from the fly.
The eternal challenge of humanity can be summed up thusly: you are a small animal of little stature; you are mortal; you are scared. Think bigger. Die young if you must, for even if you live to be a hundred years old, you will die young. Think bigger.
But enough poesy. Let us turn to natural philosophy.
Estrella Santaez y Perreta was the “empress” of el Estanque. Estrella always liked to imagine herself empress of something, and she would work with whatever was in front of her. When she was younger and far more imperious, her gifts had brought her to the attention of the royal executioner, who in time had offered her this apprenticeship. One day, Estrella herself would be royal executioner.
But for now, she was merely el Estanque’s empress—which on most days amounted to being royal aquarium cleaner. She looked after the morosely pop-eyed fish who used to be debtors, cleaned their tanks, changed their water, and shook earthworms and shrimp meal over their pools at dawn and at twilight.
“El Estanque” was just how it was commonly known—the name mothers used to frighten fractious children: “Behave, diablito, or I’ll pitch you into el Estanque!”; leg-breakers to warn delinquent gamblers: “It’s either your kneecaps or a stint at el Estanque!”; or words of warning whispered in the dimly-lit Mariposan lupanars: “Not that one, love; his one true mistress is el Estanque, who eats every coin he makes.” The proper name of el Estanque, the one by which every prodigal noble of the court of Reina Tenebra knew and feared it, was el Acuario Real para los Deudores y Pobres de la Isla de las Mariposas. It was engraved right there on the marble facade. It would be one of the last things you read with human eyes if you were drowning in debt and unable to pay your way back to breathable air.
When Estrella first came to apprentice under the executioner, she was surprised to be given as her first duty charge over el Estanque. She thought she would be learning how to transform murderers into birds—like a proper executioner—not debtors into fish.
But, as her mentor told her, “Well, your grace, even an executioner has to start somewhere.”
“Your grace” was what was what the executioner had called her ever since the day they met—Estrella at age six, the executioner who knew how old? It was both a tease and an honorific. The executioner was comfortable expressing herself in contradictions.
But it was not as if Estrella did not enjoy learning a lot about fish. And rarework. And how to turn people into fish.
The most popular fish, naturally, was cod, because everybody knew what that was. If you didn’t have a better thought in your head, you became a cod. But the wise and studied conspired to become convict cichlids, as these fish were hardy and long-lived. Their lifespans ranged from eight to ten years; if you couldn’t clear your debts in a decade, well, you were never going to clear them, were you?
Some nobles thought the cichlid beneath them, however. They tried to bribe the pretty, young guardiana del Acuario Real to give them a shape more robust and alarming, like that of the gurry shark or the bowhead whale or the bigmouth buffalo. Estrella never accepted their bribes. Instead, she talked her tongue to chalk attempting to explain the numinous nature of rarework. Pescafication was a compromise between herself, the debtor, and los Matadores, who watch from beyond the sky and decide who lives and who dies and what shape they must take meantime. But try sometime to tell a rich person that money will not solve their problems if you want to waste your life.
There were many other kinds of fish in el Estanque, as many and various as there were ways to go into debt! There were goldfish, koi, clown loaches, and pacus, not to mention quahog clams, crabs and lobsters, octopuses of every size and alligator gar as long as your nieta.1
There were two kinds of pools in el Estanque: salt water and fresh water. Both were crowded to such a degree that Estrella always found many fish—too many fish—floating at the surface when she unlocked the doors each morning.
Those were the worst moments of her apprenticeship. Her dread began before she even mounted the steps of el Estanque every morning, for she could feel within her the emptiness of the prisoners who had died overnight. Her rarework created a bond between herself and those she transformed that was only severed when they became human again or when they were no longer anything. But nothingness, though substanceless, is not weightless. Not when that nothingness was once a living soul.
“It does not seem like justice, tía,” Estrella told the executioner, who was not her tía, but who was everyone’s tía. She had that sort of face. “Did not Reina Ténebra build her aquarium to improve the plight of debtors?”
“Fewer die now than did,” replied the executioner. “And their lives are much gentler. Surely you learned in school of the squalor and misery of the debtors’ prisons of yore?”
“The squalor of the past does not excuse the iniquities of the present.”
The executioner conceded the point with a nod. “If you think el Estanque is an unjust holding cell for debtors, your grace,” said the executioner, “how will you feel when your apprenticeship is done, and I hand you over my keys to the Henhouse, and your job becomes the care and maintenance of the avified?”
The Henhouse, like el Estanque, was the vulgar word for Her Majesty’s Aviary of Murderers, where resided all the most dangerous criminals of la Isla de las Mariposas, whom the executioner had changed, via her unparalleled rarework, into birds. The condemned were given the option to take their chances as a bird out in the wild, but everyone knew that birds in the wild had a much higher chance of dying, or of forgetting too much of their human selves before they could rejoin Mariposan society as repentant, model citizens. Most, therefore, laid their nests in the Henhouse.
Plenty died there as well, of course. But more survived their stints in the Henhouse than had ever survived the gallows or the chopping block. Because, really, who survives a chopping block?
“Ah!” Estrella scolded, shaking her finger at the executioner. “I know that when you start asking me questions, tía, it means you are done answering my own!”
“When we are exploring questions of philosophy,” replied the executioner, genuinely surprised, “I believe that your grace has as many valid answers as do I. Have we not conversed thusly all our lives?”
They had, and Estrella laughed in apology for her teasing.
She then begged leave of the executioner to go away and dress for the party she was attending that night. The executioner, feigning indignation, asked who would be feeding the fish whilst Estrella danced with courtiers and delighted in genteel persiflage?
“Why, I will, of course,” Estrella replied. “Afterwards.”
She attended her party, only for an hour or so. But in that hour, she shone brighter than even her namesake. She danced every dance, drank the dry, sparkling wine her host pressed on her, and flirted her fan and fishtailed her train at every eligible courtier with a swagger and a jaunty grin. From the center of her circle of sycophants, even Reina Ténebra raised a glass to her.
But Estrella left the party early and went, still dressed in her glittering gown, to pace beside the ceramic pools of el Estanque, dreamily scattering fishfood. The night guard was surprised to see her; this was not her usual shift. But Estrella was Guardiana en Jefe of el Estanque, and if she chose to spend her nights here rather than the arms of a lover, who would gainsay her?
She stayed until dawn, absorbed in her charges. Patiently she separated the fighting fish by rearranging their potted plants, driftwood, and rocks to confuse their territory. She checked the pale, listless fish for tail rot or dropsy, and whenever she found signs of infection, she quarantined the sick in large glass bowls, which she left in the office of the chief veterinarian, who would diagnose and medicate them properly in the morning.
Sometimes, rage surged in her like waves crashing against the malecón. Maybe el Estanque was a better prison that the cruel prisons of the past; that did not make it good. Or just. Or desirable. Tonight, like so many nights before, she felt a nigh-irresistible urge to turn all the fish back into humans and end this inhumane practice herself.
But she never did.
From the Monograph Sirenas of Garganta by Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes, Doctora de Filosofia Naturál
I base the following description of that animal known popularly as “sirena” and called by philosophers “las ahogaderas”2 on four different specimens that I recovered during a voyage, which I myself financed, to the eternal maelstrom Garganta. I spent my family’s fortune in the name of discovery, and I have succeeded. If we are a society that values truth and knowledge, then my endeavors will be seen as valuable.
And if not, not. I will give you in these pages everything that I have learned. It is for you decide what price this knowledge merits. If it merits nothing in your seeming, turn me into a minnow in el Estanque where we Mariposans, in our wisdom and mercy, deposit our debtors. A minnow, if you will: I pray to be eaten quickly, since there is zed chance I will ever have the funds to spring myself out of that algae-choked hell: not without intervention from la reina herself, and we all know how likely that is.
No matter. My only regret is that I have never encountered a living sirena, now that I know what to look for. Add it to the list of indignities that are the contents of my life.
But come, enough self-pity. Let us turn to natural philosophy.
Estrella always anticipated Debtor’s Day with both dread and excitement. Today would be more merciful than most: she had three debtors to release, and only one to imprison!
There in la reina’s throne room, before the mighty Trono Sapiente itself, two of the three potential parolees (a flirtatious koi with beautifully brocaded scales in metallic gold and silver, and a feisty fighting betta with a fierce bite and fins so flowy they resembled Rojas lace) were swimming in their separate crystal bowls. The third parolee was a handsomely spotted horn shark so large that Estrella had to conscript two of her crew to wheel its glass tank into the palacio.
The courtiers who loitered in the throne room gasped and tittered behind lace fans at one another, each outdoing the other with their histrionic horror. A shark was still a novelty to any Mariposan who did not live and die by the whim of the sea.
The three parolees, as you might have guessed, were themselves all courtiers. Commoners rarely found means to pay off their debts, and when it happened, the event was surrounded by no pomp. But the courtiers—ah! They were given mantles of velvet from Reina Ténebra’s own hands, and a kiss of welcome on each cheek, a third upon their forehead. Often, there was a ball held in their honor that night—should, that is, their families be able to afford such a festivity.
Many borrowed heavily in order that they should.
Today, Estrella was most nervous about the debtor she was to imprison. She was a great admirer of Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes. She’d read every monograph on the Sirenas of Garganta that the doctora had penned, had saved all the illustrated broadsides detailing “Damiana’s Adventures at Sea”—often in song or verse. The discoveries she’d made at the edge of the whirlpool, the recovery of those colossal cadavers, and the public autopsies she’d performed in the old coliseum, which she’d mortgaged her family’s ancestral home to turn into a medical theatre: there was no one in the world like Dra. Cardosa y Fuentes.
Once, Estrella had attended a lecture Ven. Damiana gave at the Royal University. The executioner, who knew the infamous natural philosopher more than just casually, had cadged Estrella an invitation to a private dinner held afterwards at an exclusive restaurant. (The executioner was a master of giving Estrella inimitable, priceless gifts.)
Estrella had been too intimidated to say much that night, and could barely eat anything, but she’d listened to Ven. Damiana hold forth ever more eloquently as the fine wine flowed. The others in attendance, courtiers to a one, lost interest long before Estrella did. Before the evening was over, she found herself the sole audience of this fascinating, formidable woman, who looked right into her eyes without ever seeming to blink or breathe, and spoke to her about sirenas—myth, history, fact, wonder.
And now, here was Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes, a debtor by any definition, who had declared in her latest article, which had been circulating like wildfire at court, that she wanted Estrella to turn her into a minnow.
Estrella didn’t know if she could manage it. She could not imagine Ven. Damiana as a minnow. In no world could this wild-haired woman, with her tall boots and patched trousers, her strident, raspy voice that overrode all other sounds, her spectacles that seemed to reflect blue-violet fires—like the ghostly corposants that cling to the masts of ships in peril—be re-conceptualized as a bait fish. Estrella just could not do it. Not even the Matadores, she was convinced, could do it.
But when Estrella murmured her concerns to the executioner that morning before they each took their places to the right and left of el Trono Sapiente, the executioner merely returned her a strained little smile.
“Rarework,” she replied, “rarely goes awry. It may not go as anyone expects, but it will not play a fair worker foul. Try not to fall prey to your anxieties. Remember your forms and rituals. Be respectful, be precise, and—if at all possible—be impartial.”
“But you are never impartial!” Estrella cried.
The executioner shrugged. “I am your cautionary tale.”
On cue, Reina Ténebra’s herald of arms announced the official commencement of Debtor’s Day. All the courtiers assembled shook out their hems, and repositioned their feet, and contorted their postures into attitudes of attentiveness and expectancy. La reina herself mounted the steps of the dais and settled onto el Trono Sapiente.
“Presenting la Guardiana en Jefe del Acuario Real!” shouted the herald of arms.
Now Estrella stepped down from the dais, removed her outer robe to stand in a short tunic of byssus which served as her ceremonial swimwear, and made her courtesy to the court. Clearing her throat, she pronounced:
“I, Ven. Estrella Santaez y Perreta, stand before el Trono Sapiente and before all of you who are gathered here, to perform la reina’s justice.”
Silence filled every throat in the room.
From the Monograph Sirenas of Garganta by Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes, Doctora de Filosofia Naturál
But first, my indulgent reader, a word on how terrible we are at knowledge.
What a mess our language is! How orotund and phatic, brimming with folderol, convoluted and locution-laden. It is a wonder anyone can become literate at all! If we were wise, we would create a single language so perfect that we would never need turn to a separate language for mathematics, philology, alchemy, or rarework. Instead, we insist on dividing knowledge into false categories, thereby assuring ourselves gaps in our knowledge of nature and supernature.
It is almost as if we are insisting on remaining ignorant.
To the future natural philosophers who will find my feeble attempts at a taxonomy laughable, I say this: swallow your laughter and shit it out later, when you’re alone on the pot and it will do no one harm. For I, too, as a young philosopher, spent a great deal of time chortling at the mistaken notions of my forebears. I wondered how they, presumably among the finest thinkers of their respective generations, could have been so wrong.
The answer, of course, is that it is easy to see the answer when you have already been given the answer.
But enough epistemology. Let us arrive, finally, at the meat course of this dinner. What follows is the most complete and rigorous taxonomy of sirenas ever written on the planet Gloriana.
Estrella’s rarework went off without a hitch.
Well, except that Ven. Zaira lost her grip on Estrella’s hand as she was being helped from the shark tank and fell back in and floundered for a while.
And Ven. Vega almost bit a chunk out of Estrella as she was being un-bettaed back to her human form, but remembered herself just in time and apologized most humbly and profusely.
Ven. Oriol, upon being relieved of his koi-ness, fainted coyly. His grateful husband clasped him close to his breast and revived him with kisses in no time at all—to the great entertainment of all gathered.
But the real entertainment was yet to come, when Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes was to be brought before el Trono Sapiente. Only after the puddles were mopped away, the crystal bowls and shark tank cleared, and Estrella toweled off, newly composed for this next, much harder, piece of rarework, did the guards bring their newest prisoner into the throne room.
She was already talking. Ven. Damiana did not have to be dragged; she marched forward, gesticulating so hugely that the guards surrounding la reina kept stiffening like hunting cats with every sweep of her arm. But for all she noticed them, they might have been flower arrangements at a banquet.
“This is your last chance, Patricia Viviana. You still have it within your power to forgive my debt and fund my next expedition. Do so, and your name will be illuminated in all the history books as the most rational monarch that our benighted Isla de las Mariposas has ever known. Yours shall be the eponym for the Ténebran College of Marine Biology that I shall found upon my deathbed.”
Reina Ténebra rolled her eyes. “Dami,” she returned, in a voice so fond it was querulous, “you will never found a college, or even so much as a country school. You have thrown your house out the window, and then thrown the window after it. The money that we have already lent you—a great deal of it, in good faith, with promises of tremendous return—we will never see again. True, you have made some discoveries that might yet benefit Mariposas. Even now, if you agree to indenture yourself to our great fisheries in order that you might work off your debt in honor, we would consider commuting your—”
“Don’t bother,” said Ven. Damiana, not horrified or furious, just contemptuous. “I have no interest in murdering whales for their grasa. Besides, who’s to say that once you’ve hunted them to extinction, you won’t go after my sirenas?”
Reina Ténebra retorted, “Why should we hunt sirenas—which would require an outlay of considerable resources, nay, an entire renovation of the industry!—when we have no proof that they possess assets of any value?” She leaned forward on her throne. “Unless… did you, perhaps, find evidence of their potential usefulness in one of your precious carcasses? Something, perhaps, that you concealed from publication?”
As I have stated, sirenas are gigantic. But what an incomplete conveyance of meaning “gigantic” provides you, estimable reader! Should I rather say “ciclópeo,” or perhaps “descomunal”? Would “monumental” better render the breathtaking, expectation-destroying enormity of our sirenas? Perhaps “ingente”? “Inconmensurable”?
You are free to choose any word you wish when you write your own etiology. The only word I forbid, now and forever, is “monstruoso.” Only fear of the unknown would compel a philosopher to call them monsters. And fear is the opposite of natural philosophy.
The four sirenas I recovered measured in length as follows: 41.246m, 41.471m, 44.028m, and 49.533m. The span of their two superior arms, which resemble human arms in proportion to the rest of the body, measured from the tip of the longest of their five fingers (that is to say, the index finger) of each hand, for each specimen and in the same order as given above, are as follows: 31.202m, 30.97m, 32.055m, and 36.624m.
The span of the two inferior arms, which connect at the midpoint of the sirena’s torso3 range in the four specimens as follows: 24.339m, 24.567m, 25.097m, and 29.428m. Given the strong musculature, the suppleness of the tendons, and signs of wear at the elbow and inferior shoulder joints, there is every reason to believe that the inferior arms are not vestigial, but are actively used by sirenas in their daily lives, though their exact functions I must leave to future philosophers.
Their tails formed more than half the length of their bodies: 20.724m, 21.221m, 23.793m, and 25.588m. Each ends in a horizontal fluke resembling in size and proportion that of the spermaceti whale, complete with medial notch. Also similarly to whales, their tails are controlled by powerful epaxial and hypaxial muscles.4
The diameter at the shoulders for each of my four specimens run as follows: 4.701m, 4.684m, 5m exactly, and 6.11m. At their hips, I measured each at 4.963m, 5.177m, 5.385m, and 7.427m in diameter.
Since I am uncertain as to how public this account may spread, I will for the moment withhold the measurements of the chest and each of my specimens’ six dugs. I do not wish to be accused of indecency, despite the fact that there is nothing at all indecent about studying the anatomy of an animal.
I will, however, for the sake of improving society, risk censure by saying this: the sirena possesses a cloaca, from which, it is clear from my dissections, it defecates, urinates, has sexual intercourse, and lays eggs that are larger than any human has ever been. There is no way imaginable for a sirena and a human to fornicate, unless, perhaps, the sirena decided to use an entire human’s body as a dildonic appliance. There can be little doubt such activity would leave the human drowned and shattered.
Right-reasoning people of the world should take this as evidence abundant that sirenas and humans have never been, and will never be, amorously acquainted, despite the centuries of sailors’ thwarted fantasies that litter our songs and myths.
In fact, my examinations have revealed the tantalizing possibility that sirenas may be a parthenogenic species, self-fertilizing, spermatozoon-free, endlessly motherful and forevermore fatherless. If this is the case, then, with philosophical certainly, I can state that the very last thing a sirena would want in its life—her life—is a pathetically small human seaman.
In reply to Reina Ténebra, Ven. Damiana sucked in such a breath that Estrella thought she was hoping to inflate herself till she loomed over el Trono Sapiente. With face empurpled and spectacles ablaze, her strident voice reaching glass-cutting pitch, she declared:
“If you’re thinking of going after them, I say to you, Patricia Viviana, it’d be wiser for you to cast your bullion into the whirlpool and your liver after it than to hunt sirenas in the deep. The only place we’ve found hard evidence of them—and of these specimens, only their dead—is in orbit around the Garganta, which chews up our whaling ships like birria and doesn’t bother to spit them out again.
“They’re drawn there in death; they don’t live there. They don’t construct castles at the bottom of the whirlpool, and build gardens of seashells, and wear gowns of pearl and pirate treasure, and gossip about the size of each other’s dugs. They aren’t like us. Their brains are seven times the size of ours, and like us they possess opposable thumbs—on their upper arms at least. Sirenas might very well use tools. Implements. Weapons. How might they defend themselves from danger? Imagine a sentient creature, empress of all ocean predators, imagine what she might do to one of your whaling ships once she puzzles out what, exactly, has been depleting her food supply? You think to hunt them?
“Try it,” she dared them all, a martial gleam in her eye, “Try it, and la Isla de las Mariposas will find itself at war with a superior species—embraced by the powerful arms of the apex constrictor—squeezed dry!”
By now her raspy voice had dropped in pitch and timbre, not in exhaustion, but in enthusiasm. It reached from the elaborately painted tiles on the floor to the patterned cedar of the recessed ceiling to the entire court. Everyone in Estrella’s range of vision leaned in to hear her, practically salivating: at the scandal, at the downfall of one of la reina’s favorites, at the intoxicating vista of strange thoughts and new ideas that Ven. Damiana was presenting them. Estrella, too, felt her heart racing, her ears growing ears, her eyes growing eyes, the meat of her brain trying to trying understand what seven times itself might mean for its own understanding.
And what (Estrella thought wildly, suddenly) if sirenas are rareworkers too? What then, tía?
The doctora waved a hand, dismissing her dudgeon as if it were no more bothersome than smoke from a cheroot. “Ah! But I doubt such magnificent creatures would trouble themselves to eradicate a few diminutive, landlubbing, air-wheezing, island-hugging apes who wrongly think themselves the center of the universe. They have remained hidden up to now, after all. You will never find them. And moreover, you should pray that you don’t.”
“Well, then Dami,” said Reina Ténebra into the throat-clearing silence, “if that is your final word on the subject?”
Every prisoner was entitled to their últimas palabras. Estrella was shocked to note that they had arrived at that part of the Debtor’s Day ceremony already. Look, there was the executioner, waggling her eyebrows to indicate that it was, indeed, Estrella’s turn to speak!
She swallowed, and took one step closer to Ven. Damiana.
“Ven. Damiana, as prisoner indebted to Reina Ténebra, until such time as Casa Cardosa y Fuentes can make up your debt in bullion, labor, or a gift of like or equal value to Mariposan society, you are sentenced to pescafication in such form as you and I will shortly agree upon in raretime. Before we enter raretime, I must ask you: do you wish to serve your term in el Acuario Real or in the wilds of el océano Vino Blanco? Either way, you and I shall be bonded by my rarework and by the grace of los Matadores. If you choose the wild, know this: wherever you go in all the great world of Gloriana, I shall by our rarebond receive communications as to your location and well-being, and, at the time your term is up, if indeed there comes such a time, I shall be able to summon you home.”
Ven. Damiana was smiling at her now, paying Estrella her full attention. “I recognize you, niña. You’re the executioner’s prodigy, aren’t you? We ate dinner together at la Baraca. You were a marvelous conversationalist.” She winked. “I’d like to be dumped in the bay behind el Estanque, thanks,” she said in answer to Estrella’s question.
She gave another wave of the hand, this time as if knocking down a house of cards. “And I’ve changed my mind about the whole minnow thing. Do you think you can make me a squid?”
The logical portion of my mind tells me to request to be turned into a minnow, so that I can die quickly and be rid of all of this unhelpful knowing that I carry around in my skull. But what, instead, if I could die as a meal for a sirena? I would like that, if somehow it could be arranged.
The sirena is omnivorous, as the variety of their cementum-covered teeth and the contents of their stomachs revealed during my dissections. Though I cannot generalize from only four specimens, the sirenas I investigated seemed in life to be partial to sharks, toothed whales, and colossal squid, since their digestive tracts and multiple stomaches were a treasure trove of teeth and beaks. They might, in their biomes, serve as a check to the outsized growth of top predators.
How exactly the sirenas kill these animals must remain a mystery until we acquire empirical evidence. Were I to conjecture, I would hypothesize that sirenas use their four arms to constrict their prey to death. Ram ventilators such as sharks would be immobilized and would immediately find it difficult to breathe, whales would have their lungs emptied and would soon drown, and colossal squid—well, sirenas probably need not waste time depriving a colossal squid of air. They probably just rend it to pieces, and then eat it up as daintily as we enjoy tripe soup.
I make this last conjecture unfancifully: those whales who, like the sirena, dine upon squid have sucker-scars all over their dermises, acquired during the great battles they must have fought with those monsters to earn their dinner. The four sirenas I dissected had no such scars on their bodies. The early evidence indicates that they can dismantle a kraken like a child pulling legs off a beetle.
Yes, perhaps I will ask the guardiana to turn me into a colossal squid and throw me into the sea. Then, I could range the abyssal depths until I found a hungry sirena. I would dance in front of her, cavorting and tumbling and seductively squirting ink. In that way, she would know me to be her meetest meat. She would grab my arms and pull my massive head free of them. Then, as I watched, she would eat my arms like a child eating licorice, twist by twist. I would be in shock and bleeding out, so perhaps I would not be aware when, saving the best for last, the sirena would eat my head and make me nothing.
But perhaps I would. I think I would like to behold my entrance into erasure.
The rest of the court, Estrella knew, were gathered on the southeast loggia of the Palacio de las Sombras, watching her rarework from its sheltered splendor while dining al fresco on delicacies of both surf and turf caught or slaughtered that morning. El Acuario Real flanked the palacio on the west, with the airy Aviary of Murderers soaring several stories high on the east, all part of the campus that included administrative buildings, courthouses, a planetarium, the natural philosophers’ cabinet of curiosities, and a few of the oldest colleges of the Royal University, all lining the sea cliffs of los Centinelas.
But for the moment, at least, Estrella and Ven. Damiana were alone on the malecón, the paving stones of the breakwater wet beneath their bare feet. Rarework needed no incantation or grand gesture. The executioner sometimes prayed before she transformed a murderer into a bird. Estrella, rather, looked deeply into the eyes of her prisoner, and fixed them fast in her memory as the humans they were—flawed, desperate, frightened, specific. She gave them the gift of her fullest attention, her entire capacity for thought and feeling, an acknowledgement of their humanity. She doubted, in these moments, everything. And it was in that moment of doubt, in the locking of eyes, and the knowledge of her own and her prisoner’s beautiful humanity, that she invoked her rarework.
But in that moment, the rarework wasn’t hers alone. It was theirs. It was the rareworker’s idea of justice, and the prisoner’s idea of their transformed self, and whatever inscrutable logic the Matadores applied to these matters. Estrella’s mouth would fill with the taste of brine, and her eyes spill over with tears, and then everything would go a clear and pale gold, like the world was being washed in wine.
She, in her swimming tunic, and Ven. Damiana, naked5, made their way down the slippery stone steps of the malecón. Together, they stepped into the gray-green waves of el océano Vino Blanco, until they stood in water up to their thighs. They held hands. Ven. Damiana’s hand was colder than the water. She was trembling.
When Estrella saw Ven. Damiana’s chin lift, she lifted hers as well, determined to be as brave. Their eyes met.
On the loggia of the Palacio de las Sombras, the court of Reina Ténebra marveled once again at this work, which was, in truth, so exceedingly rare.
Letter from Estrella Santaez y Perreta to the Society of Natural Philosophers, Year 34 of the Tenure of Reina Ténebra, in the Month of Cielo Desierto, Day 17.
To the Most Esteemed Members of La Reina’s Society of Natural Philosophers,
It is my melancholy honor to present to you this description of a sea creature that heretofore has not been identified nor described in the annals of Glorianan science. The name I have given this fish carries with it the imprimatur of Reina Ténebra herself and may not be changed, save by royal fiat. What follows below is a description of this new fish which I have called the “chupasirena.”
One of the peculiarities of rarework of which you may not be aware is that, at the moment of transformation, the rareworker is accosted by an onslaught of visions pertaining to the transformed. Those visions range from history to prophecy and reveal to me what fate awaits the transformed. When I search my inner life, I can feel every person whom I have transformed, individually and distinctly. I know whether they are well or sick, hungry or sated, frightened or calm. I also know if their minds are irretrievable, or whether they might still be returned to human form with their memories and personalities reasonably intact.
In the pescafication of Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes into her chupasirena form I experienced (and continue to experience) the clearest line of communication I have ever known between myself and one of the transformed. I am regularly receiving dispatches from her now—images, sounds, physical feelings—from the lightless depths where now she flourishes. Such an ongoing, powerful, and limpid link between minds is unprecedented in rarework to my knowledge, and to the knowledge of my mentor. I consider it nothing less than a miracle, a gift from los Matadores.
It is from this connection that I am able to give you the account of the heretofore unidentified fish, namely, the chupasirena, that follows.
For clarity’s sake, let us say the chupasirena greatly resembles the famous and well-documented remora. It, like the remora, is a symbiote; the chupasirena has formed a mutually beneficial relationship with a powerful creature of the sea. The remora has its famous friend, the shark, and the chupasirena has its sirena.
Once Ven. Damiana was pescafied, I fainted, and my vision joined Ven. Damiana’s in an act that can be called nothing less than clairvoyance. We traveled through an ink-thick darkness that was—please note this, philosophers—no impediment to the self-illuminating eyes of the chupasirena. The ocean makes for such a strange, slow medium!
Deeper and deeper we swam, Ven. Damiana assured of her destination as if she were a native of the ocean. I realized suddenly how little time we on land spend looking up. Underwater, however, a predator can attack you from any of 1080°. How two-dimensional my life on land felt, and how wide my vista underwater!
During a vision, time speeds up during periods of uninterest and slows down at moments of importance—the opposite of how time normally works for us here on land.
I cannot say how long we swam or how deep we dove. At some point, I simultaneously registered that in the black zones to which we descended, the pressure would squeeze a human body to death, and that the chupasirena finds that pressure quite pleasant and comforting. It is built for the deep.
Time slowed again when the chupasirena arrived at her destination. Her destination was a harmony of sirenas.
This harmony consisted of at least seven sirenas, who, despite their massive forms, cavorted with one another with all the obvious and contagious joy of porpoises. They moved so quickly, in fact, and were of such an immensity that I found it difficult to count them. My view was also impeded by the fact that Ven. Damiana was following her new instincts as a chupasirena and, well, began chupando the nearest sirena.
That is to say, she shot over to the nearest sirena and began chewing on some sort of tubæform ectoparasite that had attached itself to the sirena’s lower back. The parasite—an eyeless, mouth-and-sack nightmare—had affixed itself just above the seam where mammalian-seeming flesh turned into piscine-seeming scales.
After Ven. Damiana had finished her meal6, not a mark was left on the sirena’s skin where once the parasite had fed off her7. I am recalled to a childhood experience where I yanked a leech off my leg, instead of letting my parents remove it with art and delicacy, and the scar left behind remains there to this day. Clearly, the sirena and the chupasirena have come to an agreement: “You may eat of the bounty of parasites on my body,” says the sirena to the chupasirena, “and I, in turn, will not make a meal of you.”
But here my clairvoyance began to fade. While my mind retreated from hers, I saw, swarming around the sirenas, a large school of chupasirenas. They zipped about, circling and tumbling as much as the sirenas themselves—and, I came to realize, with the sirenas. I wonder now if the typical chupasirena is an exceptionally intelligent fish, one that perhaps the sirenas have domesticated and bred for its usefulness, as we have dogs. Indeed, the chupasirena reminds me strongly of the dog, for its frolicsome nature and its desire to please its master. This I felt from within Ven. Damiana herself, who, in my last memory of her, was charging gleefully into the school of chupasirenas and playing among the harmony of sirenas. It was as if she had always been a part of their community.
Her feeling of happiness was so complete in that moment that it has no equal in the human mind.
Ven. Damiana’s felicity is our loss. She will never, ever, ever, come back to us, no matter how I call her. Humanity will never again benefit from her numberless gifts, save through the messages she deigns to transmit to me, for as long as they last.
But know, natural philosophers, that I will dutifully relay to you everything that Ven. Damiana teaches me about sirenas, chupasirenas, and life under the sea. Even now, I must write to you a second letter regarding the means by which sirenas use the scalding ejecta of fumaroles to bathe themselves and their beloved chupasirenas!
Until then, please know that I remain the obedient servant of los Matadores, la reina, my mentor, and you, friends and colleagues. My greatest desire is to witness a growing alignment of science and rarework until that momentous day when our two disciplines will become one.
With all Gratitude and Respect,
Ven. Estrella Santaez y Perreta
Guardiana en Jefe del Acuario Real para los Deudores y Pobres de la Isla de las Mariposas
1 Ven. Aurelia Tierradulce y Matos, famous for her extravagance, became an entire coral reef. So robust a reef, in fact, that when she was returned to her human form a mere four months later (her debt having been paid by a windfall from a dying uncle) much of the coral remained. It was transported to the beaches near the Palacio de las Sombras where it could flourish.
2 Or “the women who drown [humans].” At this point in history, there are exactly zed verified cases of humans who have been drowned by sirenas. Let this serve as proof that natural philosophy needs to engage in a great deal of self-examination before it can claim it has freed itself from the prejudices it has inherited from society at large.
3 The inferior hands are webbed, four-fingered, and, unlike the superior hands, lack opposable thumbs. They thus resemble the frog’s manus.
4 Though I dare not speculate as to what the top speed of sirenas might be without beholding them in the wild, the fact that they prey upon the fastest alpha predators in the ocean, along with the fact that there is little likelihood they have much ability to camouflage themselves, makes the prospect that they can outpace some of the fastest predators in the sea a viable one.
5 Her choice. Of course she was naked.
6 It is my pleasure to inform you that either my clairvoyance did not also impart a transmission of the gustatory sense, or the chupasirena does not possess it, for I tasted nothing of that ghastly meal.
7 I have adopted the convention in Ven. Damiana’s late writings to refer to sirenas as “she/her,” with the understanding that you, as natural philosophers, may in due time find a more appropriate referent for this species, which, as you know from Ven. Damiana’s writings, may be sexually monomorphic.
© Copyright Carlos Hernandez and C. S. E. Cooney
Carlos Hernandez (he/him) is the author of the Pura Belpré-award winning Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (2019), as well as its sequel, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe (2020) and the short story collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria (2016). He is also a CUNY associate professor of English at BMCC and the Graduate Center, as well as a game writer and designer. Find him on socials @writeteachplay.
C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com/@csecooney) is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Bone Swans: Stories. She has narrated over a hundred audiobooks, released three albums as the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and her short plays have been performed in Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, New York City, and Taipei. Her novel The Twice-Drowned Saint can be found in Mythic Delirium’s recent anthology The Sinister Quartet, and her forthcoming novel Saint Death’s Daughter will be out with Rebellion in Spring of 2022. Other work includes novella Desdemona and the Deep, and a poetry collection: How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which features her Rhysling Award-winning “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction and poetry can be found in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Dragons, Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere.
Read the Rest of the April Issue
- The Coral Fairy by Lorraine Schein
- The Undersea Crossing Guard by Lorraine Schein and Kris Herndon
- After Atlantis by Lorraine Schein
- The Lady in the Lake by Lorraine Schein
- Gothmaid by Annie Taylor
- The Mermaid’s Dilemma by Michael Angelo Stephens
- Caught by Stevie Rose Maguire
- Cold Weather Accessories for Imaginary Creatures by Lorriane Schein and Kris Herndon
- Bathyscape by S. Brackett Robertson
- Blonde Mermaid by Denisse Di Stelle
- My Little Mermaid by Lorraine Schein
- The Collector by Tara Campell
- Mischievous by Dianita
- The Many Mermaids of Fiction by J. D. Harlock
- Wistful by Annie Taylor
- A Minnow, or Perhaps a Colossal Squid by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez
- The Fin(e) Print by Meg Frank
- Wanted: New Captain & Crew by Julia Rios