Sirens

Abigail Schmidt

When the earth, moon, and sun are in perfect alignment, gravity pulls the oceans to their highest tides, flooding land masses. As temperatures across the planet rise, sea levels rise. Currently, the sun is so close it takes up most of the sky. New rivers, lakes, and seas sprout up—standing water in places that were always dry. It creeps over Bhutan and Belize, Aleppo and Germany. Governments shuffle people up to the highest points of their countries.

The crowd is big and the sun is high. I’m sitting in a stadium made for a football game, but instead of a field there is a pool in the middle. It’s hot. The crowd hums. I can’t focus in on faces. I’m not even paying attention to faces. I’m sitting in the nose bleed section and straining to see the spectacle—a man in a top hat prancing around one side of the pool. His hair is wild. His voice comes on over the sound system, wild also. He’s asking for volunteers, “Who of you is brave?”

I catch his words after he has started saying something else. I look over and see Jill—who is both a friend and a golden retriever. Jill is not raising a limb to volunteer; she is looking down in avoidance. She has a red balloon. It’s tied around her ankle in a slip knot like my mother used to tie when I was a child—so that you can loosen it and take it off. The balloon catches the master of ceremonies eye, and he heads our way pointing at Jill, thanking her for her bravery, attempting to rile the crowd in support. Jill makes her body as small as she can. She hides a shoulder behind me. I look into her eyes as he grabs her and whisks her down to the side of the pool. “We need you to dive down to the bottom of this pool and bring her back.”

I look at the pool more closely. There is a figure at the bottom. The water wrinkles my view every time I get close to focusing in. At the side of the pool, Jill looks as though she is trying to will herself in, the crowd is cheering like football fans at every move she makes toward the water.

I walk down toward the pool. My feet hit the concrete stadium steps one after another as I say “I’ll do it.” I say it over and over again, but no one notices. They are watching Jill and the man with the top hat. They are chanting, but their words don’t register; all I can think is “I’ll do it.”

Finally, I get to the bottom. Finally, the master of ceremonies notices me. Finally, my presence interrupts their insistent incantations. Jill’s head is protruding over the water, face wincing. “I’ll do it.” Finally, they see me.

I’m looking now at the water. I’m looking at the body at the bottom of the pool. My face hits first. I open my eyes and strain to see where to swim. The pool is deep. I swim down for forever, for what feels like miles. I think I will never reach her until I do. I lift her arm and pull her toward me. She is heavy— swollen and saturated—and I struggle with how awkward it is to keep hold of the mass that she is. I assume she is dead. I assume she’s been in the water for some time. I start swimming up toward the light. I see Jill’s red balloon and head toward it.

The woman is slippery and her face is hidden by floating mermaid hair. I make it to the surface. Somehow, I manage to push her bloated body out of the water. I tire from the strain of pushing her onto the pool deck. I lay next to her on the concrete. Her face is pointed toward mine. Eyes open, she grabs my hand. My hand starts to bloat. It fills with fluid. Each finger now plump, skin tight. The bloat is moving to my arm. She rips a set of gills from the side of her neck and corks them into mine. “I’ve been waiting for years for the earth to flood, but I’m done. I’ve made passage after passage transitioning the land wary into the water. It’s your turn now,” she says, voice course and shrill. She tells me to get back in before it’s too late, before I will be too heavy to move and my gills will prevent me from breathing air. I reach to my neck. I feel the tiny slits emerge from my skin. I look back over at her. She’s unconscious. I try to push her back into the water, but I’m not strong enough. I’ve heard about these women, but I’ve never seen one. Gifted with an ability to transition a human into a watered world. Lurking in lakes and estuaries, in water that hides them well. I wonder how she knew I would come for her until I begin to gasp, and sputter on the air. I ask her if she can move, if she can come with me. She’s unresponsive. I look into her horrible, bloated eyes. Double pupils in each one. Eyeballs that protrude with lids so stretched and loose that they can no longer fit into their crease. I search her irises for a flash of life.

The crowd is panicked by the sight of her bloat moving into my body—an odd contagion. Jill is licking my face and the bloat begins to move into her scruffy body. Jill follows me into the water. I take one of my gills out and stick it into Jill’s neck. We both keep our heads above the surface until the gills are fully functioning. The stadium is almost empty now. Those unafraid of whatever plague is infecting us linger, watching for what might happen next. I can’t tell if they are looking at us or at the woman still lying on the concrete. I wonder if I should tell them to find some gills. I wonder if we really need saving.

I walk down toward the pool. My feet hit the concrete stadium steps one after another as I say “I’ll do it.” I say it over and over again, but no one notices.

Once Jill and I have gills, we are captives to the pool. Swimming around in a fish bowl. I take trips to the surface and I fight the urge to get out. I got out once to test the reality of my new space, and I could only lay flat. The weight of my body was no longer meant for movement without water. The next time I went to the surface the concrete pool deck was under a foot of water. It was a flood without rain. A sunny day with waters rising.

Jill and I pass the time starring into each other’s eyes. I make every attempt to communicate with her. My attempts to talk all wash away. I can’t understand myself. My words blur and buckle under the weight of the water. Each time I try to tell Jill something, she cocks her head. But when we lay down on the bottom of that pool and look up at the surface, inevitably we both turn our heads toward each other, and look at one another. We create our own language out of glances, stares, squints, and pupils’ flickering with joy. We sometimes stare at one another until we are interrupted—by sleep, by motion at the surface, by an itch or a twitch.

It takes a while for the world to fill with water, but finally, we look up to see a blue marlin swimming overhead. We make our way out of our concrete enclosure. Everything is water. The old world drowned. A casualty of cars and carbon. Jill and I spend the first few weeks looking for others like us. We find bones and skulls scattered on rooftops, cypresses bare of their bark covered in green silt, and amphipods and crustaceans, fat and tired from feasting.

Jill scares so easily—unsure which creatures are safe and which ones will devour her whole. Eventually, I think she will learn to catch a slow plankton or minnow. For now, I poke my bloated skin and she feeds from the hole. At first, I fear that she will eat me alive or that I will deflate completely. But the bloat never diminishes and the closeness is a comfort. I feed on seaweed; sometimes I just open my mouth and swim forward, unthinkingly, catching whatever floats in my way.

Jill becomes porpoise-like. Her hair begins to wear away except for a tuft on the top of her head, and her mid-section swells three times its normal size. Her legs seem odd little flaps that cling to her sides. Her whiskers stay, and her ears flatten to her head invisible except for an outline. But the most curious transformation is the way her bloat sinks down into her tail. I mold it into the best replica of a fin I can fashion. It still wags, but that wag propels her. We work on her swimming for hours. Retraining her movements in order for her to fully utilize her tailfin. Our work pays off. She looks made for aquatic life. The water takes to her. Somehow, I conflate her body with my own, and this is where I err, but it’s hard to call it a mistake, really. It feels completely natural to see myself woven into her movements.

The thrill of her successes bewitches me. Her progress distracts me from the fact that I still look like a bloated human, with hair that swirls constantly around my head obstructing my vision. When small signs of adaptation occur on my body, I compromise them. I gnaw off my limpets, even though I love how they shimmer, so that I can offer her warmth while we sleep. I whack away the small wrasse fish who has so dutifully removed a whole host of parasites from areas out of my reach, and offer it to her when she has a bad case of sea lice.

We decide to swim up in search of the surface. Jill is much faster than I her body smooth and strong now—my feet are no match for her tailfin—and she no longer cowers behind me when we come upon a strange creature. I weave a harness out of seaweed for Jill, it fits like a vest with two thick ropes for me to hold onto, so that I do not fall too far behind. I fit it on her, and she obliges. We swim past the tops of sky scrapers. We swim past the peaks of mountains. Once high enough, such a sight—a thousand vistas of the world submerged—dark and shadowy, but alive with mollusks and eels, kelp and coral, schools of orange basslets high and free.

We anxiously keep moving upwards only to find darkness and a white snow falling all around us. Here, there is a thickness and a saltiness pushing in on us. Our ears pulse and eyes struggle to stay open. My fingers spread apart and I can differentiate between my digits. My back and neck feel pressure as if I am being squeezed on all sides. I want to glide in this space made of only sensation, so much sensation that I am forced into a mode of input only, being acted upon at a constant by nothingness.

I suddenly feel jerked back. I’m no longer holding the seaweed ropes. My porpoise-like world is not in view. Jill is intently watching a vampire squid. Its pink skin barely visible in the dark, its extremities glowing, its tentacles swaying. It floats, a pink umbrella with bioluminescent lines. Jill’s in a trance. It moves slowly. Everything does up here. The squid catches the snow on its tentacles and moves them towards its mouth. I open my mouth, tongue out, catching snow. Jill does not, and I try to remember the last time she ate. It must have been weeks ago. I try to show her that the snow is safe to eat. She instead is moving closer to the vampire squid. It pays little attention to her. It doesn’t seem to be hunger drawing her toward the squid and, Jill is far too big for the creature to eat. She moves closer still and begins to nudge it with her nose. It moves away. Blue-eyed and demure, it looks back at her. I’ve become a skilled reader of eyes and I see something in the way the squid looks at Jill. It’s quick, and just as soon as I notice it, it disappears. The more the squid resists Jill’s advances, the more she seems to insist. The squid begins to move at Jill. She finally seems satisfied to hover next to the squid.

I gnaw off my limpets, even though I love how they shimmer, so that I can offer her warmth while we sleep. I whack away the small wrasse fish who has so dutifully removed a whole host of parasites from areas out of my reach, and offer it to her when she has a bad case of sea lice.

We stay for what must be weeks, months even. Jill mimicking the movements of her pink cephalopod, while I become lost in compression, in sensation. Up in this new stratosphere, lost in thought, I wonder if we will develop a taste for raw fish or for floating sleep or for life without red balloons. I wonder if there are more bloated woman with floating mermaid hair transitioning others from the dry world to the submerged.

I look over at Jill and she looks at me. Her stare is fleeting, with a flash of independence. Maybe I had ignored it before, but I could not now. She swims away as if she knows the mysteries of the deep, and I feel something new: desperate to be a part of that look, to share its secrets and know its intuitions. I want to weave a million little harnesses and bind us together with kelp and sea spaghetti.

I start to swim back to the pool. I don’t even glance to see if she is following; I just go. Down through the city settling into its new ecosphere with buildings covered in green soot and others nearly buried in peat. The pool was still as we had left it. We swim down to the bottom, the white concrete floor just starting to peel. We lay down next to one another. I turn my head toward her. I fall asleep knowing Jill will be gone by morning.
I wake up and swim to the top of the pool. I lay down in the spot where the bloated woman was. I wonder if my eyes look like hers. I see a school of fish swim above me. I long to become one of them. To tuck myself into the middle of their movement. Quick and smooth, they echo through the water.

I look for a little tuft of hair or an outline of ears clinging to a small head on each porpoise I see. Sometimes I briefly catch the eye of someone, and for a moment, I think it’s her in another form. As if she alone holds the last fragment of the sun, the last whisper of the air and has split herself into a thousand-different species grown from the bloat of my body.

Abigail Schmidt has a Master’s degree from the University of Nebraska where she studied literature and philosophy. She lives in Nebraska with her family and she works an office job. This is her first publication.

Before the Razor
A look inside the creative process of “Sirens”

I have always had a preoccupation with dreams. What are they anyway? What is the stuff of that dreams are made of? I’m sure a neuroscientist could give me an explanation, but I’m not ready to give the mystery over to science. When I have a really bright dream, I think on it, and think on it, and try to plant it into my mind. I’m not trying to decipher meaning as much as I just want to stay there.

The opening of this story is a dream I had sixteen years ago right before my aunt drown. It definitely felt like a foreshadowing, and it wasn’t the first time I had a dream eerily connected to real life events. I don’t like the anxiety that comes with wondering if your nightmares are precursors to events in your life, and so I planted it in this story. It takes on new associations and it means something new, I think.

The story itself is me trying to process my experiences as a mother. I wanted to think about the estrangement and fluidity of the self that happens when you grow people. They start out needing you desperately—emotionally, physically. They are just barely not you. Helping them grow, being part of their development has brought me to the highest places. There is fluidity in this relationship between the mother and child; in that, it often feels like you are a two and not a one. There also can be alienation from self, and I wanted to try to tap into that—what does it mean to watch another with such dedication and care that you stop watching yourself? I also like to think about the materiality of one self to another, one body to the other. The mother exists in all forms, her life is slathered all over the place, her DNA, fluid surges everywhere, runs rampant as a very material presence in the world. In a way, she takes on lives beyond herself.

Sensation is also really important to the story. Sensations that give pleasure, sensations that remind us of ourselves, and sensations that are more difficult to define, like dreams you want to stay in, a sensation that returns you back to yourself.