When you row into a sea lane in a bark canoe, in search of a free ride, you cannot choose what kind of vessel picks you up. It’s all a matter of fate. The caique that took them aboard was not a pirate ship, but a paint pot of dyes and spices, carrying a handful of passengers west to (conveniently) Crete.
Crete would not have been Hylas’ first choice as a destination. He had already stopped off there with the Argonauts, and the memory of it was vivid as a whip’s weal. He still had nightmares about Crete. But if Heracles had gone back there, then Hylas had to go too.
The Captain of the caique was not eager to take Thoősa’s bark canoe in lieu of the fare, but the other passengers took one look at Hylas and persuaded the Captain to let him climb aboard.
“They like the look of you,” whispered Thoősa, who had begun to see an advantage to Hylas’ beauty
Before nightfall, they saw a far-from-beautiful sight. Hylas and Thoősa were watching dolphins plunge and leap ahead of the bow, as if to coax it through the water. But then something else washed by. A crowd of passengers and crew gathered by the port rail, pointing, excited.
It appeared to be the body of a woman – and then another, and then a third. The waves gave the impression they were still alive, rolling them and flinging a limp arm, palm up, in the boat’s direction. Someone fetched a rope. But when the hair washed from over the faces, the rope hung limp and a dozen passengers covered their mouths. Not shipwrecked young maidens, after all, but hideous crones, their skeletal jawbones clacking open and shut as if even death could not stop them talking. The crew began to jeer and throw things at the bodies – shoes and fish heads and tar brushes. “Sirens! The Sirens!” The words travelled along the boat,
“I lost a brother to them hags!” said one.
”I lost a whole shipload of mates,” said another.
Hylas was drawn to look. Thoősa tried to pull him back – “Where are you going? Who wants to see dead people?” - but Hylas looked over the side just as a fourth Siren came bumping along the hull. Her arms were thrown outwards, her tusky nose pointing up at the sky, her eyes half open. The mouth, too, was opening and closing… but there was still breath behind the red lips, and her song infused her face with colour and made her hair shine gold. Music notes pulsed through the purple veins in her throat and, as they did so, it was as if she moved in and out of focus. A trick of the light. The waves that washed over her face masked and unmasked a decaying loveliness.
“Orpheus! Orpheus!” she sang.
“Get a rope!” cried Hylas. “She’s seen Orpheus! He’s my friend, Orpheus! She’s seen the Argo!” He jumped up on to the heels of his hands, leaning over the rail. Second best to finding Heracles would be to catch up with the Argonauts! He shouted down at the woman in the water: “Orpheus? You saw Orpheus? When? Where? Which way?”
But the fourth Siren washed by, and shrieking seagulls drowned out the last song of the Last Siren. There was no more illusion of loveliness. Towards the stern, one of the passengers managed to snag her with a boathook and haul her within each. With a knife, he sheared off a hank of hair matted with scum and particles of decaying fish. ‘Proof’, he called it.
Hylas ran and asked the sailors: “Who were they? What did you call them? Where are they from?” But the sailors only spat into the sea, nauseous with disgust and superstition. The Sirens were the stuff of horror stories and travellers’ tales: monstrous women who lured sailors with songs so beautiful that they jarred a man’s brain into seeing beauty that wasn’t there. Their music had tempted whole crews of men to hurl themselves into the sea and swim to the rocks and lie at the Sirens’ feet, pine at the Sirens’ feet, die at the Sirens’ feet, of thirst and starvation and longing. Only the deaf were immune. Only the stone deaf ever lived to tell of it, to keep the story alive and fuel the fear and loathing all seagoing men felt towards the legendary Sirens.
I always thought, if it was me,” said Thoősa, “if I had to sail by them on a quest, I would rattle lots of pots and pans, so I couldn’t hear…”
Hylas thought of Heracles, and wondered if the Hero’s deafness would have been enough to protect him while he slaughtered these pests of the ocean...
“I wonder what they heard,” Thoősa was saying, her eyes bright with imaginings and sudden tears. “Music even lovelier than their own: that was the only thing that could kill them. Beautiful enough to break their hearts. It was their Fate from the beginning.”
Hylas pictured Orpheus the Singer, head thrown back, eyes closed, the ribs of his chest expanding like bellows, to expel from his soul music so lovely that his fellow Argonauts fainted over their oars. Now the dying words of the women in the water made sense: Orpheus was the reason there were no more Sirens in the world. “How do you know these things?” he said, peeved that Thoősa knew, when he had never even heard of the Sirens before today.
Thoősa did not notice the annoyance in his voice. “Oh I know all the stories,” she said pulling a face. “You can live in the middle of nowhere and the stories still blow in on the wind. It’s just that things always happen somewhere else.” And she went back to the prow of the ship, presumably to keep watch for an adventure of her own.
There was one passenger aboard the caique who took a particular interest in Hylas and Thoősa: a merchant named Polyxo. It was he who had reached a boathook over the side, to scalp the Siren. His heavy-duty robes, plain and travel-stained on the outside, allowed glimpses of embroidery, coloured linen underneath, and fur purses on cords across his body. He had several crates of cargo aboard which he watched with hawkish eyes, complaining: “People tamper, you know. Given half a chance, people will steal the teeth out of your head.” But to Hylas and Thoősa, he was kindness itself. He lived on Crete, he said, and offered them a bed, a meal and work if they cared to accept his hospitality after the ship docked. Hylas explained how he was trying to catch up with his master, Heracles, Hero of Heroes. “As soon as I am home, I shall make enquiries, lad. We shall find him if he’s there.” And he looked Hylas over from head to foot. He did not ask how he could be of help to Thoősa. In fact he never took his eyes off Hylas for long enough to give her a passing thought.