You dive, our beauty never seen
Until you’re trapped in worlds of green.
To land you won’t return.
For beauty won’t your life you trade
And join us in a brief parade?
The countless lives we’ve took and played
All men for beauty yearn.
So join us, hear our siren song
Your lifetime left you’ll come along
Until no more for breath you long
So turn, green waters, turn.
O gentle waters turn.
– Ariella Pearl
There was a conversation going on at the moment, but I wasn’t paying any attention to it. I added in a “cool” once in a while, but my mind was far away from my cousins’ small talk. I stood, clad in a damp T-shirt and swim trunks, on the wet sand of the beach, the ends of waves lapping at my bare feet.
My two cousins, Kyle and Mark, stood by me in similar beach garb, involved in a conversation that included various and frequent interjections of “dude,” “man,” and “bro.” For Mark and Kyle, this was the height of the Californian beach experience: looking cool, wearing overpriced sunglasses, and exclaiming over bikini-clad, blond-haired, sun-tanning teen girls. I was uncomfortably bored with their so far fifteen-minute-long conversation about a certain exceptionally “hot” bikini-wearer. I wanted to be deep out under the ocean, my new goggles strapped over my face, with a clear view of the green, underwater world. But Mark and Kyle would have none of that, especially the goggles, which they said made me look like a dorky robot.
“Jarren!” I broke my gaze from the ocean horizon at the sound of my name.
“What?” I turned to Kyle, trying to pretend that I had been interested in what he was saying.
Kyle groaned. “I said, ‘Jarren, check out that…’” But, even though it was no doubt some girl, I never got a chance to hear exactly what I should check out. A skinny, pale-skinned girl on a boogie board, with dark, stringy hair and a seagreen one-piece bathing suit, was ejected from the ocean with the waves, whooping and cheering as she shot right into Kyle, knocking his legs out from under him.
“Oh!” The girl jumped to her bare feet and flung her dark, stringy hair over her shoulder, revealing a face clouded with freckles. “I’m so sorry!” She took Kyle’s hand and yanked him to his feet with a surprising amount of strength in her skinny arm. “Are you OK?” She peered into my cousin’s face. “There’s no way to steer on these things, you know. Someone should invent boogie boards that steer, don’t you think?” Her voice came out in a lively, enthusiastic burst that made me wonder whether she took the time to inhale at all.
“No problem,” Kyle said quickly and shakily, stealing a glance at Mark. All three of us turned away from the girl, expecting her to rush sheepishly back into the ocean. Kyle and Mark returned to their conversation and I, imagining the quiet peace I could have beneath the ocean, looked towards the sea— and found myself faceto- face with a freckled, dark-haired girl: the kid with the boogie board had never left.
“Oh!” I took a leap back. “Er… um… are you OK…?” Oddly, to my surprise, I noticed that her eyes were almost exactly the shade of the ocean.
“Yeah,” she said perkily, looking unfazed. “My name’s Rosie.” She stuck her hand towards me.
“Um…” I looked over to Kyle and Mark for help, but they’d abandoned me and moved on to another conversation on their own. The girl, Rosie, reached down and grabbed my hand, giving it a firm shake.
“I- I’m Jarren…” I stuttered, not wanting to hurt the kid’s feelings but longing to leave the awkward situation.
“Nice to meet you, Jarren.” Rosie kept her grip tight on my hand. “Come on, you aren’t really interested in what those guys are saying anyway. Why don’t you come and swim with me?” She gave my hand a hard tug.
“Listen, kid, I can’t…”
“Who’re you calling kid?” With her freckled face screwed up in anger, she could have been a laughable sight, but I, a head taller than her and much heavier, was strangely frightened. “I’m thirteen years old,” she said proudly. “How old are you, anyway?”
My face flushed, an annoying attribute that popped up at the most embarrassing times. “Th-thirteen,” I stammered. Rosie humphed triumphantly.
It was hard to believe this scrawny little imp was my age; she was a full head shorter than me and looked unhealthily skinny, like someone who had been starved or underfed. Her swimsuit hung as loosely on her tiny frame as someone’s baggy jeans might.
“Just come on, OK?” she said to me, never loosening her grip on my hand. “We don’t have to go swimming. Don’t you like books? I’ll show you a really great book.”
I completely froze in my tracks with enough force to make Rosie’s fingers untangle themselves from mine. Suddenly, I was shaken deeply. I did like books, but how did she know? How did she know that I would have rather been enclosed in a solitary garden or forest, living incredible adventures through written words, than here, looking cool on the beach? She could have been a good judge of character who randomly popped out of the ocean. Or, she could have been something more than that, something abnormal, something fantastical like you’d find in a story…
“Jarren?” Rosie turned toward me.
I hesitated a moment. “Yeah… yeah, coming.” Then, somehow finding my hand back in Rosie’s, I followed the tiny sprite of a girl beyond the sands of the beach.
* * *
Why do I need to see this book so badly, anyway?” I was squatting in a sparsely furnished room, wondering why I ever followed this little stranger to her tiny, cheap-looking apartment. I wasn’t worried that I was in any danger—Rosie was such a weak-looking, skinny thing—but I shivered with dread when I thought of Mark and Kyle finding me missing, probably alerting my parents. Before I had decided to try to be cool like my cousins, I had many a time wandered off into forests and fairylands and gotten separated from the group. A sickening feeling came over me when I thought of my father’s face, once he found out I had followed a stranger to her house.
“This book is my single most prized possession,” Rosie announced, pulling an ancient-looking, leather-bound volume from a wrinkled trash bag. With its thick, uneven-edged pages, old, dusty appearance, and strange, fish-like symbol on the cover, this was exactly the kind of book you might find magic in. “Of course,” Rosie continued, hardly seeming to stop to take a breath, “that’s not much to say, considering the small amount of possessions I actually own.” She opened up the trash bag to reveal a tiny jumble of items. They consisted of no more than a few T-shirts, a single pair of shorts, and a worn-out pair of tennis shoes that looked two sizes too small for even Rosie’s tiny feet. The magical-looking, leather-bound tome that Rosie held seemed to be the only book she possessed.
“All my belongings have to fit into this bag for when I move to a new foster home. I’ve been in three different homes this year alone. Can you believe it?” Rosie grinned at me.
“Um… uh…” I couldn’t believe it, and I thought it was awful, but I didn’t know how to respond. My skin crawled with discomfort. I’d always felt uncomfortable around people who had suffered great hardships, thinking myself awful for not having gone through the things they had. Fortunately, Rosie didn’t read much into my silence. It took her a split second to get back to talking.
“In fact,” she continued in a lively, animated voice, “I’m supposed to move to a new home tomorrow. That’s why it’s so urgent we look at the book right now, so that I don’t have to move away from the beach.”
“Um… uh-huh,” I feebly grunted, growing more uneasy by the second.
Rosie blew a film of dust off the book’s cover. “It’s not actually this dusty,” she explained. “I read it so often that there’s no way it could be. But the dust makes it look so ancient and magical, so I roll it around in the sand quite often. It makes it look so lovely, doesn’t it?” I had to admit, the particles of dust poofing off of the cover gave a dramatic effect.
“This book,” Rosie said, cracking open the spine to a yellowing page that displayed an ink drawing of the ocean, “belonged to my mother. In fact, she wrote it herself.” She pointed to a signature scrawled in the corner, a name handwritten in black ink that read Ariella Pearl. “That’s my mother’s name.” For once, Rosie was silent. I stewed in heavy, awkward air until she took a breath and, fortunately, started up again.
“Do you like mermaids, Jarren?” she inquired, her eyes sparkling like the ocean. “Not the purple-and-pink, redhaired kind, but, you know, real mermaids? Sirens who lure sailors off their ships to drown them?”
“Um, yeah. I guess they’re OK,” I said uncomfortably. “Besides the, you know, killing people part.”
“Those sirens—that’s what my mom’s book is about.” As she leafed through the pages, ink-drawn images of beautiful and eerie girls with fishtails instead of legs flipped before me.
“Interesting,” I said, preoccupied. I nervously glanced towards the door, wondering when I’d be able to escape this girl and her crazy book.
“Do you want to know why I’m in foster care, Jarren?” Rosie looked at me, making uncomfortable eye contact.
“That’s OK.” I got to my feet, inching towards the door. “I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
She grabbed my hand and gave me a stony stare. Holding the mermaid book in the crook of one arm, she read from one of its pages.
“‘If a human woman or girl wishes to become a siren, there are three steps she must complete. First, she must go out to sea in a sailor’s vessel and dive head first into the water at midnight exactly. Then, she must sing her greeting to the sirens below. And finally, to prove her heart and worth, she must bestow upon the leaders a gift of…’ um…” Rosie slammed the book shut… “of something special, basically.”
I stared at her for a second, my jaw swinging on its hinge.
“Don’t you get it, Jarren?” She tucked the book under her arm. “My mother! That’s why I’m living as an orphan. And my father, he…” she trailed off, on her face the look of one who had just betrayed an important secret. “Well, he’s dead. But my mom, she left me this book. She wants me to become a siren and live with her. And I’m going to do it tonight, because I’ve finally got the special gift! Will you help me, Jarren?”
I stood, dumbstruck, for a moment. Rosie was insane—understandably so, having lost her parents, but still insane. And I was insane for the part in the back of my mind that wanted, unexplainably, to believe her and help her turn into this nonexistent creature she thought her mother had become.
“Rosie,” I said finally, “I know losing your parents must have been hard. And I know believing that your mother is a… a mermaid helps with that pain. But Rosie… it’s insane!” I burst out. “Mermaids, magic spells—none of it is real! This book is a work of fiction!” I grabbed the book from Rosie, who yanked it back with unbelievable force.
As I made my way out the door, Rosie’s blue eyes haunted me. She called desperately as I left, “Please, Jarren. I need you! Meet me on the beach at halftill- midnight tonight. Please!”
Her eyes flashed in my mind as I slammed the door.
* * *
“I am insane. I am completely insane.”
“No, Jarren. This means you are sane, that you still believe.” Rosie smiled a crooked-toothed, charming grin my way.
We were sitting side-by-side in a rowboat we had “borrowed,” the ocean turning my face green from seasickness. What in the world was wrong with me? I was on a stolen boat with a stranger at close to midnight, risking getting in even bigger trouble than earlier that day, when my parents had found out that I’d followed Rosie into her house. I didn’t know why I’d decided to come out here to meet Rosie; I didn’t want to be here. I could hardly remember escaping the hotel room once Mark, Kyle, and my parents were asleep, but somehow I knew there was no other choice but to meet Rosie, just as she’d wanted me to.
“It’s nearly midnight now.” Rosie glanced at her wristwatch. “Soon we’ll be seeing the sirens.”
“Right.” Even though I had mostly come to terms with the fact that I was helping Rosie on her wild quest, I still wasn’t sure whether or not I should believe in her mermaids. Part of me found it so natural to believe, but another part saw it as completely absurd. “Um… so what exactly will the mermaids look like?” I asked.
“Well, it’ll be different for each of us,” she said. “I’ll see them in their true form, with turquoise-y skin and dark green hair.”
“Oh,” I said, mildly shocked. The image of a Disney’s Little-Mermaid-like maiden disappeared from my mind.
“But for you,” Rosie continued, “and for almost all boys, actually, you can’t see the true form. The sirens appear as the human girl you’re most attracted to.”
My face blushed red.
“But don’t worry.” She grinned. “I won’t be able to see what it looks like, remember?”
“Right.” I chuckled nervously.
Rosie peered over the edge of the rowboat. “I shouldn’t dive in and call for the sirens till midnight, but maybe I should dip down there now to check for obstacles. You know, sharks and stuff.”
I shuddered. “Seriously? You had to bring that up?”
“I’ll be right back.” She grinned and shed her shorts and T-shirt to reveal the same damp, baggy swimsuit she’d worn the day before. Her dark hair tied into a ponytail, she plugged her nose and plunged, feet-first, into the ocean.
Without Rosie, the rowboat was lonely and frightening. The ocean rocked the boat slowly and sickeningly, the stars glinting evilly on the ocean’s surface. I glanced at Rosie’s watch, which she’d left on the rowboat’s seat. It read 11:55; Rosie would need to be back soon if not to miss midnight. I shivered in the cool night breeze, wanting only to see Rosie’s dark-haired head popping up from the water. A splashing noise a ways off drew my attention.
“Rosie?” I leapt to my feet, the boat splashing underneath me. An eerie, beautiful song suddenly seemed to seep from the water, but I paid no attention, because Rosie’s head had appeared where I had heard the splash. “Rosie?” I called again.
The person was Rosie, no doubt, but her black hair was sleek and completely dry. Her eyes sparkled blue-green as always, but her lips had not before had that bright red hue.
“Rosie…?” I called again, this time more warily. Her bright red mouth opened, and a hypnotizing song came toward me. The song’s beauty was beyond anything else, and so was she. “Rosie…” I mumbled, my lips feeling thick and clumsy. Nothing else mattered anymore, except Rosie and her song. A glistening fish tail emerged from the water; it was attached to her torso but I didn’t care; it only enhanced her beauty.
I blinked and shuddered, looking down to find myself balanced on the boat’s helm, poised to jump. “What…?” I mumbled.
“What are you doing?” The voice, the same one that had called my name, came from Rosie, tail-less, heaving herself onto the rowboat. Her drenched hair hung stringily in her face, and her lips were a chilled purple, not the siren-Rosie’s shade of bright red. I looked out over the horizon to see a tail disappearing beneath the waves.
“You were about to jump! Thank goodness I was here, don’t you think?” She wrapped a beach towel around her shivering shoulders. “You must have seen a siren, then. Don’t worry. You don’t have to tell me who she looked like.” She placed a wet hand on my shoulder, and my chest gave an odd flutter. How could Rosie be the human girl I was most attracted to, the one the siren chose to take the form of?
Rosie grabbed her watch from the seat. “11:59! Come here, Jarren, it’s almost time to go!”
Now, suddenly self-conscious, I pulled off my T-shirt and kicked away my flipflops. Rosie seized my hand, as was her custom, and pulled me onto the edge of the boat. She focused, unblinkingly, on the watch, its little shiny numbers reflecting in her eyes, and stood unnaturally still. I stared too, fidgeting a little more than her, until, with a barely audible click the numbers changed to 12:00. Before their transformation was even complete, Rosie had flung the watch aside and disappeared head-first with a swan dive into the ocean. Clumsily, I splashed in after her.
Being beneath the ocean made me wish I had brought along my “dorky robot” goggles. I opened my eyes to get a blurry view of the space around me, but salt stung my eyes. The underwater world, which was usually silent and peaceful, was alive tonight with a creepy, alluring song. A few inches away from me, bubbles flew from Rosie’s mouth as she sang a greeting to the sirens. In my blurry, water-clouded sight, with her hair spinning gracefully around her, she could have been a siren as far as beauty goes. She also didn’t seem to need to breathe, which was my problem. My heart pounded in my chest and my lungs seemed to beat against my rib cage as I struggled to survive the lack of air.
Then, suddenly, I found myself gasping in saltwater from surprise. A pale white hand reached up from the ocean depths, and a siren, identical to Rosie, seized my ankle. I tried to scream but only breathed in more water. Every time I coughed, more ocean invaded my lungs. The siren was pulling me into a deeper, darker, noticeably colder depth of the sea. Where was the real Rosie, and why wasn’t she trying to help? Had she already made her transformation into one of these awful, murderous creatures?
Then, suddenly, a hand slipped into mine: never before had I been so glad that Rosie had such a strong grip. My blurring, clouded vision could perceive her freckled face above mine, ripping me away from the siren. We rocketed towards the surface of the ocean, Rosie pulling me along, with sirens’ songs and smooth fingers brushing against my feet. A large part of me wanted to stay down there with the sirens, sacrificing my life for a little of their beauty and music, but I didn’t fight against Rosie’s power. After what seemed like a lifetime, we broke through the water’s surface, and Rosie heaved me into our rowboat. I sputtered and coughed a good amount of seawater onto its floor.
When I was finally able to speak, I turned to Rosie. I was alarmed to see that her face was red and tear-stained. “Why did they do that?” I said in a raspy voice. “They tried to kill me!” Then, looking her over, I saw her feet and toes. “You’re not one of them. You didn’t give them whatever that ‘special gift’ was! Oh, thank goodness!” I grinned, but caught myself. “But… your mother…”
Rosie took in a raspy breath and sniffed. “Jarren?” she said, sounding more timid and shy than I’d ever heard her. “I need to tell you something. Those sirens, they kill people, you know. More precisely, they eat them. Their food consists of male humans. That’s why they like to lure the men off of ships, so that they can eat them.”
“Ohhh…” I muttered, not knowing what to say as tears cascaded down her face. She sniffed hard and spoke again.
“But there’s something else you don’t know!” she choked out miserably. “The gift that a girl has to give to become one of them—it’s a male human! You have to give them a boy they can eat, and then they’ll use their magic to make you one of them! That’s the gift to prove ‘heart and worth’!” She broke into sobs. “When I saw you, it was so easy to recognize you as a kindred spirit. You loved to read; you desperately wanted to believe in magic. You were the perfect one to trick into coming. You were the perfect gift.”
“So…” I shuddered. “So I was the gift. They were going to… eat me.” Rosie managed to nod her head. “But you saved me! You saved me before they could eat me, and they didn’t get their gift! That’s why you’re not one of them.” Somehow, I couldn’t be angry at the girl who had just nearly led me to my death. All I wanted to do was console her and stop her heart-wrenching sobs.
“My mother,” she said softly, wiping tears from her face with wrinkly, wet fingers. “I saw her down there. My father, he was her gift to the sirens. It was shortly after I was born. She wrote a message to me in the back of the book, telling me about giving my father as the gift and turning herself into a mermaid. She was the one who grabbed your ankle. When she saw me—recognized me—she looked so… so happy! My mama, I finally found her, and she was ready for me to come home. But I left her there. I left her there!”
“Rosie,” I said, grabbing her firmly by the shoulders. “Your mother loves you. But you should not—cannot—join her. You’re different than she is. She murdered your father, Rosie, and left you an orphan. But you’re so much better—you couldn’t even manage to kill me, a stranger. She loves you, Rosie, and you love her, but you can’t be together. She’s not deserving of you. And you’re too good to become a monster like she is.”
Rosie’s head dropped onto my shoulder, sobbing and shaking. Silently, with as much strength as Rosie had when she pulled me from her mother’s claws, I paddled the small boat back to shore. My shoulder was clammy and soaked with Rosie’s tears, and I would treasure that feeling forever. When we reached the sand, I dragged the rowboat back to its ignorant owner’s dock, and Rosie collapsed into a heap on the sand. When I came back, her tears were dried, and she stood unsteadily on her feet. She took me softly by the hand.
“Rosie?” I said nervously, relieved that she was looking more like her strong self. “When I saw the sirens… they looked like you.”
Rosie threw her skinny arms around my chest, and I could feel the bony joints of her shoulders as I wrapped mine gently around her neck. Her lips were soft and cold as she kissed my shoulder.
“Have a good trip to your new foster home tomorrow,” I said, choking on the words.
“You have a good trip too. To wherever you go next.” She released me and took ahold of my hand, leading me off the beach and silently letting me go as we got to the road where our ways parted.
As I walked alone and barefoot on the side of the road, I thought of faces clouded with freckles, ocean-colored eyes, raven black hair, evilly glistening mermaid tails, and the feeling of freezing lips and salty tears on my shoulder. From where I stood, a strip of the sea was barely visible. As I looked out over it, I thought I could see a glint of a siren’s tail, but I didn’t care. I thought of Rosie rocketing into my cousin and tears slid down my cheeks. Oddly, a verse of poetry that I thought I had long forgotten drifted in to mind.
So turn, green waters, turn.
O gentle waters, turn.