what happened when we sang into the sea

Pigeon Point lighthouse USA, California, Big Sur

Time was, if I wanted a man, all I’d have to do is sing. My sisters, too. Just a couple notes. Nothing fancy. It couldn’t just be sounds, though. Humming didn’t work. There had to be words. Wasn’t important what they were. Sometimes I’d rattle off the titles of magazines I was reading, or describe the clouds. Priscilla sang the grocery list. Eleanor sang the washing instructions from the tags in her underwear. We couldn’t figure out why it happened. Our voices weren’t even all that pretty. Didn’t seem to matter. It was something in the tone, I guess. We just knew it worked, and we used it whenever we felt like it. Men came in droves. With fat bouquets of flowers in their hands, bees still buzzing in the buds. With chocolates by the crateful. With jewelry they put bank notes against their houses or their trawlers to afford. We took it. It wasn’t our place to tell them how to spend their money.

Then, that damned lighthouse grew out of the rock.

Nothing was the same after that.

It took months. The better part of a year. We saw it growing like a beanstalk in the distance. We tried not to look. I thought maybe if I gave it no grace, it’d cease to exist. It didn’t. Priscilla and Eleanor turned their dislike into song. Hoped it would work like it did on the men, only backward. It made no difference. Some things you just can’t sing away, no matter how hard you try.

We went about our business, and it went about its own. The light tainted our view of the night sky, so we took our chairs to the back porch and sipped our sweet tea there instead. Wasn’t the same, watching the woods blend in with the darkness instead of seeing the stars reflected on the ocean. “An upside-down sky spread like a blanket on the ground,” Eleanor would call it. The woods, she called “a dumping place for vermin and such.” She was a water spirit, just like me and Priscilla.

Eventually, we made peace with the tower and turned our chairs back to the sea.

We sang, too. Sometimes.

Not always.

It felt like the spinning light dimmed our power somehow. Like it was taking what we’d use to draw men in and using it to warn them away instead. This sat well with no one.

Priscilla took it as long as she could. Then she fixed her eye on the lighthouse keeper. Emmett Crawley. He wasn’t unhandsome. Had something different than the sea captain look we were used to. He was barrel-stout and chapped and smelled of damp wool and wasted sea. Didn’t we all, though. She liked the promise she saw in his big hands and sad eyes with salt in the corners. Thought she could talk him into leaving the light off. He’d never said anything to her more than, “Ma’am” as she passed the tower with her parasol. Then, she took an interest of a more personal nature. She wanted to see how he worked during the day, to find out what a lighthouse keeper did when he had no midnight ocean to watch over. Turned out he raked, mostly. Kept the grounds around the lighthouse trimmed and tidy.

Still didn’t speak, though.

Priscilla took his silence as heartbreak, in a fashion. He’d lost something, she knew. Not that he’d told her. The knowledge just came to her one day. “There is a hole in that man,” she said.

“There a hole in everyone,” Eleanor reminded her. “Or there will be soon enough.”

“Maybe. But his is shaped like me.”

Eleanor snorted. “If you think so, then go sing. He’ll come.”

Priscilla wanted an honest shot at him, one that didn’t begin with her singing to him about garlic cloves and brisket. I didn’t see what her fuss was. He was solitary and solemn. Didn’t know how to make conversation. Had no eye for anything but that light. She tried anyway.

The girl was determined. I had to give her that.

She packed a sundown picnic for him. Made it sweet, too. Grapes and fancy cheese with a red wax shell, and little wine glasses to hold sparkling cider. Nice eclairs for dessert from the Tidewise Bakery. Braved some ridicule to get them. She put on a saucy little dress that showed all the good stuff. Carried the basket all the way from ours on the cape to the cliff where the lighthouse stood. Must’ve knocked on his door for twenty minutes. But Emmett Crawley wouldn’t give her the time of night. Just stood on the widow’s walk. Kept watching the horizon, like his light was a line, and if he waited long enough it would haul in ships instead of cod. She was down there with her heart in a basket and her boobs popping out of her prettiest frock. She was his for the taking, his goddess if he wanted. If he’d only have looked down. Of the three of us, she was most worth looking at.

He couldn’t see her. Or wouldn’t.

Priscilla felt Emmett was too good to pass up. Even though she didn’t want to, she ended up doing her thing. Sang him a song about a woman made a widow by the sea. How the water swallowed her husband whole and spit out the bones. We never sang things like that. Our simple songs had allure enough. We didn’t know what effect something with depth would have. She sang it, though. And he heard. The horizon didn’t exist to him anymore. Or the ships just beyond it. Just Priscilla. The man came down from the tower and reclined in the sand. Tore through the cider and devoured the cheese and ate the grapes from between my sister’s breasts. They made sand angels in their passion. Dug their way beneath the surface as much as it would allow them to. They met like that for a full cycle. From full moon to full moon. It was always the same, every night. Grapes and cheese and cider and eclairs. Same dress; same song. Somehow she knew she had to fit all of him she could into those days. Those nights. The way she told it, it felt like her soul bloomed beneath the moonlight, reaching for happiness she knew she couldn’t catch.

She was right. She was too much for him to take.

Too magical.

His soul bloomed a little at first, like hers. The longer they carried on, the bigger it became. We knew it was happening, Eleanor and I. We could hear it on the porch, from the other side of the tower. Didn’t matter to them, though. That soul of his just kept right on blooming. Didn’t know how to stop, I think. Hadn’t been shown kindness in so long that he turned inside-out from it all, like a pocket. And on the occasion of their twenty-eighth picnic, his heart shut off, somewhere between the eclairs and Priscilla rolling him over like a sea bass and climbing on top. He wasn’t used to great passion either, we reckoned. But the cream-filled smile stuck on his stony face said he hadn’t minded a bit. Priscilla was tortured by it. Never had a man die on—or under—her before. Between the two of us, Eleanor and I decided that, if he’d really had a hole shaped like her in him before, there was a hole in her now too, shaped like Emmett Crawley.

Priscilla didn’t sing anymore after that.

Eleanor? She was more brazen. Always had been. She didn’t want a lonely man who tended the darkness. A man who hid in a tower with a lantern the size of God at the top of it and watched the sea for strays. A man with an Eleanor-shaped hole in him. Eleanor didn’t want a man at all. She wanted men. In multiple. So that’s how she had them.

For this, Eleanor discovered voices. Different sounds. She sang opera when she wanted a dandy, folk tunes when she wanted plain and earthen. Rock and roll when she wanted dangerous. She could even split her voice in half and sing two songs at the same time. Two or three men would arrive, each of a different flavor. Eleanor took them one by one, or two by two—or all at the same time, if that’s what she wanted. They didn’t argue. She was the least discerning of us, and the most distinct. When they were in her bed, she would sing them their instructions: where to touch, what to kiss. How forceful to move. They sang, too. Songs of another nature. Answers to her calls. Sometimes it was musical; sometimes moaning. Sometimes an unending growl. My bedroom was just beneath hers. Nights like that were like living one floor below a musical sex theater.

Once night, she changed her tune. Sang a lullaby in the bathtub. Slower. Sweeter. Didn’t really have intention behind it. But

it made things happen.

Instead of a man that time, she got a woman.

Gertie Fink. Ran the library in town. She was beige and bookish and calm. Blended into the bleached walls of our house so well, we couldn’t find her again if we took our eyes off her. Eleanor brought her in, guided her upstairs, sat in the bath with her. She used this new voice again, one meant only for Gertie. It was nothing like her voices for men. It was nothing like Eleanor at all, in fact. But it worked.

Gertie stayed in our house by the sea for a good long time. She was like a book when she showed up, practically made of paper herself. Brittle, I would call it. Pale and dry and full of words she wouldn’t say to anyone but Eleanor. Closed tightly. No coincidence she hid herself away in a book forest. The longer she stayed with us, the more she opened. Found pages she didn’t know she had, added chapters that hadn’t been there before. Her skin grew color. Her hair softened. Her eyes took shine, discovered light. We could find her against the walls by then.

As much as Gertie grew, Eleanor shrank. She’d always been big and bold. With Gertie, she drew down. Sang small. Chose her words carefully and kindly. Wore clothes that covered the places she used to expose on purpose. But she had a different purpose now. Her body was for Gertie alone to see.

Gertie’s life was tiny enough to draw notice when it expanded a bit. Townsfolk liked their librarians bookish and bland. But Gertie had become grand and good-humored. Visitors in the stacks assumed they knew why, and began asking her about personal matters. Why she was spending so much time at the Gilder house. If she knew what kind of stories were told about the sisters. If she was becoming like them…like us. Drawing men from their women and their wives with songs and sucking out their souls and sending them back hollow and haunted. Yearning. At first, Gertie thought it was jealousy. We lived without need of anyone in that town. Except the men. Gertie believed it, too. But Eleanor’s bathtub lullaby made her uneasy now. Eleanor had sung it to her every night since the first. They had a ritual.

She’d draw the bath. Gertie would climb in. She’d wash her clean of the day that clung to her. Rinse off the library dust. Smooth her hair, lull her into surrender. Take her to bed.

But in the shadow cast by the townsfolk’s talk, their practice had a different meaning.

When she came to ours from the library one night, her mouth was full of rumors. Most of them happened to be true. “Is that the song you sing to me?” she asked.

Eleanor had sung the lie of it all into some new reality for herself. “Only the first time,” was all she could say. Priscilla and I were in the room when it happened. I think we all felt Gertie’s heart crack open like a ripe oyster.

That night, Eleanor bathed Gertie. But Gertie asked her not to sing.

We felt Eleanor’s heart crack open, too.

Later, when we were all asleep, Gertie Fink left the house, walked down to the shore and into the sea. Up to her ankles. Up to her knees. She just kept on walking, and the sea just let her. Took her in, like we had.

We woke in the morning and found her body on the shore, broken against the rocks. Eleanor was thunderstruck. So much pain in her song then. So much anguish. She had betrayed Gertie from the start, without meaning to. Without realizing she was doing it.

She had a hole in her now, too.

Priscilla and I thought it was an accident. Eleanor thought it happened because Gertie had wanted it to. It took a stranger to tell us it was a bit of both.

He was there in the lighthouse and had watched it happen. He was powerless to do anything to stop it because of the song she sang. It dropped over him like a net.

The townsfolk were right. Gertie had become like us.

By the by, we learned that this stranger was Jared Crawley, nephew of Emmett. He had no children to inherit the tower, so it fell to his sister’s son. The only one who dared come tend it. Jared showed up before midnight and climbed the tower, only to watch Gertie wander seaward as she wove her spell on him. He was ever so sorry he hadn’t been of help.

I was certain we all laid claim to that regret.

Eleanor found no comfort in it. The edges of her had been singed. She grieved, as much as Priscilla had grieved Emmett. Grieved for the holes they’d been left with, in the shapes of those they’d loved.

And I wondered what shape the hole in me would be, if someone ever left one. How much it would hurt when it happened.

Priscilla and Eleanor took to wearing black, and mourned in duet. Their songs turned to whispers. They feared raising their voices and bringing more misery into the house. They despised the company of others. Even me, most times. I had no place in their coven of sorrow. I had never lost anything, or anyone. Other than them, I supposed. I was left to my own matters between rounds of tending their grief. Largely, I brought them sandwiches and tissues and bottles of red wine. And more sandwiches. As it so happened, their grief had a large appetite and liked to be quite drunk at all times.

The light in the tower burned again, the first time since Emmett had expired under Priscilla. I’d never have told my sisters, but it felt like an old friend had come home. I waited up at night to watch it blaze. Followed its dizzy revolution around and around, like watching a dancer doing spins. I wondered how far the beam reached before it was lost to the eye. I came to believe that the sea ate light. That if you traveled far enough out into it, you’d find another sun made up of it all, sizzling and soaking in sea spray. Clearly, I knew nothing of the world.

Jared was more neighborly than Emmett, by far. I watched him walk the railed circle atop the tower. He was jaunty and made of angles. His clothes billowed in the wind. He was far too thin for a man of his height. I assumed his kitchen skills were limited to working a can opener and brewing coffee. That couldn’t be left as it was.

I decided that song was nothing but trouble. My call to Jared would be food, not music. So I left a note on the lighthouse door one afternoon. Invited him for soup and potatoes and grilled cheese at seven pm. Thought he’d toss it away when he saw it. Roll it up and feed it to the sea. To my delight and amazement, he showed up that night. On time. Wearing a tie.
My sisters stayed in their rooms, rocking and whispering. I liked to think they were granting us privacy, but I knew they had no concern for us at all. To them, those walls were made of sadness now. They couldn’t be seen beyond it.

Jared made handsome when he took a razor to his chin and brushed up his hair. He practically shined. He smelled of bar soap, of pine trees and licorice. He’d scrubbed the sea from his fingernails. To have clean hands for eating with? Maybe. To have clean hands to hold mine? I certainly hoped.

“How’d you get so spiffy?” I asked him. I’d mostly talked to no one but myself since Eleanor and Priscilla had taken to mourning. I was surprised my skill for conversation hadn’t rusted shut.

“Took a ride into town to see the barber,” he confessed. “Barbers talk a lot, you know.” He told me the same rumors about the Gilder Sisters that I’d heard just about forever. The same ones Gertie spat at us all when she’d heard them herself. He asked me how I felt about the way the townsfolk considered us, acting so cruel and cold and keeping their distance. I told him their affairs were theirs, and our affairs were ours.

“I figured as much,” he said.

Then he asked me about myself, which I’d become unaccustomed to. So I told him what I could. That I liked watching the sea with my sisters, that I could hold my breath for six minutes at a time, that I couldn’t cook anything besides the soup and potatoes and grilled cheese we were eating, but I’d perfected them. I didn’t mention the singing, or the men. How true the rumors were. There never seemed to be a good moment to slip it into the conversation.

When it was his turn to talk for a while, he told me stories of the sea, of raging swells higher than the lighthouse. Of squalls that turned ships over and over again before leaving them upside-down. Of sailing through the ocean’s fickle, foul humor. Without realizing it, I thrilled to every word. To every look. To every touch. He was drawing me in. It felt strange and fizzy to be on the other side of that.

I decided I would never sing for him. He would be the only one. I saw what it did for my sisters, when they stopped singing for the sake of luring gentlemen callers and started singing to pull in people they truly cared for instead. Lovers with actual love in their touch. And the songs of the Gilder Sisters had stolen that love from their very grasp. I couldn’t let mine do the same.

Jared came to me regardless. On a night when the stars fell into the sea like a shower. He carried me from my porch and into the tower. Took me to the widow’s walk and held me. We tended the darkness together. The light spun behind us all the while.

Five weeks passed with us gathering up all the happiness we could, while my sisters stayed behind bricks and windows. Jared came one evening to tell me of business he had. That he’d be sailing for Cape Des Jardins to close out his uncle’s accounts, and when he returned we’d have a wedding. It was only the news of this that brought my sisters from their spells. Their eyes lit again, for the first time since they’d retreated from the world. My happiness gave them hope again. We talked cakes and dresses and veils and vows. “No town wedding for Meredith,” Eleanor said. “Those bitches don’t deserve to witness her joy. She’ll be married on our shore.”

“Wear your gown on the sand three days from now,” Jared told me from the bow of his boat. “I’ll bring us back a sea captain to do the deed.” His goodbye kiss tasted of sea salt.

Of course it did.

There was no sleep for the Gilder Sisters those three long days. We spread blankets on the beach, spent our time plotting a map of the wedding. Drawing with sticks on the shore where everything would go. Eleanor laughed and drank peach wine. Priscilla flicked her toes through the sand and plucked blooms from the vines to tuck into her hair. They took lace from the shears in the windows and ribbons from the sashes and made me the gown of all gowns. I wore it like seafoam, like Venus rising, if she’d had a lighthouse staring over her shoulder. It felt like life had slapped us all on the asses again. At last.

But with no one to tend it, the light in the tower had been dim the whole time Jared was away.

***

I heard it in my sleep. The sea was laughing. Choking. Curling into madness in the distance.

I ran to the shore, stood on the rocks and watched into the darkness again. Like a fortune teller staring sloe-eyed into a crystal. Jared struggled to stay afloat. Turned his sails, trimmed them. I knew he was in peril. Like Priscilla knew of Emmett’s heartbreak. Like Eleanor knew of Gertie’s decision to just keep walking. He was sailing back to me, hard as he could against the devil’s whorl. I felt him slipping beneath the waves, once and again. I could taste the tang of seawater that filled my throat as it channeled into his. I could feel it fill my ears as it filled his, and the second heart that had grown within mine, the heart that belonged to him, finally lay still.

I climbed the tower and stood on the widow’s walk, knowing the name had come true. I’d never sung to him. Somehow, I believed if I did it now, I could guide him to me. Somehow, I believed I could reach into the sea with my voice. Reach into my fate and make it question its decision. So I leaned over the railing, and I sang like I never had. I sang until my throat went raw.

The bastard sea just laughed in return.

Jared’s ship never came to shore. The sea swallowed it all. Didn’t have the decency to spit out the bones, like Pricilla’s song for Emmett said it would. After three more days on the tower, I stopped waiting. Eleanor knew what it was to watch the sea. So did Priscilla. “There’s holes in all of us,” Eleanor had said not so long ago. Now I knew the shape of mine.

It was jaunty and made of angles, and clean beneath the fingernails.

***

We let the summer finish its crawl toward autumn. Wasn’t like we had a choice in the matter. When the new season arrived, we carried our clothes from our little home and moved into the lighthouse. Just took it over like a crab in a stolen shell. Townsfolk who found out said it was ironic, a bevy of sirens taking their shelter in a tower by the sea.

I said the townsfolk didn’t know how to define irony.

We made things simple for ourselves. A return to form. As if our form had ever been simple before. We lit biblical bonfires and toasted apples in the flames. Drank ourselves ignorant on homemade wine. Twirled and spun in the starlight, keeping the lighthouse to our backs at night so we didn’t see the light as it spun. If we didn’t see it, we reckoned, it wouldn’t remind us how lost we all were. That it wouldn’t shine through the holes that had been left in us. It hadn’t worked so well in the past. Didn’t really work then, either. Still, we tried. Watched the sea for things that wouldn’t be returning. It seemed we were always looking in the wrong direction.

And we sang. New songs. Songs that had real words. Not just lists or clouds or the names of magazines, but words we’d earned. Words we’d fashioned from our own pain. Words we thought we deserved. “Let the men come tell the Gilder Sisters how pretty they are!” Priscilla cried out. “Let them bury their heads in our dresses and dig their way out with their tongues!” Oh, did we sing.

Suddenly, our voices didn’t do the trick anymore. Our songs were just songs, and that was all. They brought no men, no flowers, no chocolates.

No nothing.

We believed that the lighthouse had drained it all from us. Warned everyone away. Though life could have done it just as easily.

To be truthful, I think we were all glad of it. I was, at least. We did our best to feel worthy of a man’s attention. Eleanor tried to dress of a sensual fashion, but her hips were as wide as her bosom, which were equal to her behind. She was one big curve in all directions. There was nothing sensual about a globe like her. No man would be brave enough to set sail around her equator. Without liquor in his blood, at least.

Priscilla appeared fifteen years older than she had before Emmett. Her youth had been switched with sadness, and there would be no switching back. She pulled her breasts up to where they’d been when they’d shone like fruit nestled in a grocery bin. They insisted on working their way down to her belly again. After several attempts, she just let them be. Just let everything be, actually.

As for me, I’d become worn. A piece of glass abused by the sea until I’d tumbled smooth and gone soft to the touch. All of the interesting parts of me washed dull and rounded down. Not enough shining in me to catch a gleam, even. I was as common as I’d been rumored to be. We all were. Without song to call men to us, there would be no men at all. We certainly couldn’t go looking for them at the barber shop or the Tidewise Bakery. We’d have been run out of town on rails. Eleanor and Priscilla and I, we all knew our place then. And it was where the townsfolk had always said we’d belonged: not with them.

So we stayed in our lighthouse and we watched the sea for things that wouldn’t be returning. We were always looking in the wrong direction. Our so-called magic had ended up as more of a palsy for us. A disadvantage disguised as luck. Always had been, I think. We’d been as dazzled by it as anyone. The Gilder Sisters, singing shore-side whores who destroyed any true affection that came their way. Who couldn’t get real men, so they got mesmerized men instead. Lifted their skirts and danced them horizontal under carnal moons and sent them back to town humming, smelling of stale dime-store perfume and fresh fornication.

Everybody has to be known for something, I suppose.

Might as well be for that.

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