Beneath the Surface by Megan Prumbach

How do you mark the change in a man? How do you know when, exactly, he decides to throw aside everything he has known and live a life of tyranny? Is it one single, definitive moment or rather the culmination of wrongs that make a villain?

I never considered myself a villain.

I suppose every man could say that, and it is true to him, especially those that have turned from the lap of luxury to the life of piracy. I’d never wanted a single thing in my life. Hate me for saying that if you will, but it’s the truth. As a child, I’d never known the bite of hunger that haunted every waking moment, never struggled to know if I would have a roof over my head and a place to sleep at night. My father was a mercenary– the best one of them all. I was one of the fortunate men that perused concert halls and art galleries around the globe. I’d heard music played by the gods themselves, seen beauty in its every form.

Known love and felt the bitterness of its end and the emptiness that consumed each breath that made it known life without her was pointless. The luxury became a burden as each good thing punched me with the reminder of what I lacked. So I changed my life to swindling and swashbuckling. The rum numbed the pain, and the gold was a perk. I’d been young and hellbent on conquering a world that had tried to conquer me. Some said I succeeded, and maybe I did.

Maybe I am a villain.

***

With each passing moment, the fog grows thicker around the bow and sides of the Jackdaw. The air is heavily perfumed with salt and seaweed, so thick the sliminess can be felt on the skin. The craggy rocks growing out of the mouth of the sea like fangs from a monster’s maw are less visible as we steer nearer to the island, and all I can think about is how I have sealed the fate of all of my crew.

There were legends, old tales now that many heeded but never really believed, about an island far from safety and the winged women who would call you to your death. These women were beautiful beyond comprehension- and deadlier than fire. They would seduce you with honeyed words and otherworldly beauty- all at once and faster than you could blink- only to drag you down to a watery, heartless death. At least, that’s what the legends said. No one had yet to prove otherwise that these tales were true. Men driven mad by days at sea with no food or water rambled on and on about seeing their entire crew dragged to their watery grave but were heralded by the world as madder than a hatter and soon forgotten about. I knew various captains in my long years who believed these tales to be true. I had dismissed these notions after years at sea as mere poppycock, children’s tales. I was one of those that did not believe.

How foolish was it to not believe.

“Captain, are you sure we should remain on course?” A nervous voice speaks from my elbow, and I jump, turning to my first mate. His sallow skin is drawn tight with fear.

Absolutely not. “I am absolutely sure, Bill. Take heart, man. It’s just a bit of fog, it will clear in no time.” Even as the words fall out of my mouth, the last drops of certainty and bravery leak from my heart.

“Aye, captain.”

It feels as though we have been sailing for hours, but I know it must only be minutes. The minutes stretch on, tension drawn tight like a string about to snap. Something feels very wrong. The hairs on my arms stand up, and the back of my neck prickles like a pair of eyes is boring into it. No ounce of courage is left in me to turn– even to prove that innate sense wrong. Instead, I stare down into the water lapping the sides of the ship; in its cerulean depths, I swear I catch a glimpse of a shimmering tail and a pair of strangely human eyes. Don’t be a damned fool, Christopher, I think and snap my attention back to my surroundings, trying as I might to make sense of the unfamiliarity around me.

The bay that led into this island had been flanked on either side by sharp merciless rocks, and from what little I can make out in the grayness around me, there was little vegetation– just barrenness and sand. Along the narrow body of water, the ship was following. I could just see on either side beige sandbanks. Emptiness. All that was surrounding us was emptiness. This couldn’t possibly be an island inhabited by anyone, and yet… I can feel eyes all around me. A chill spider walks itself down my spine as I hear a high cry. I whip my head around to the source of the sound– the cabin boy, Marley. A young lad of only eighteen who didn’t yet have his sea legs was pointing off to the distance, his face pale and taut with fear.

“Dear God! There’s a woman on the rocks!” Marley cries out.  “Abeam to starboard, captain!”

Like machinery, all heads on board swivel to the right, and men scramble over each other to lean over the side. My heart rate ratchets up in tempo, thudding heavily against my chest until it feels nearly impossible to catch a breath. Sure enough, there on the rocks is the most beautiful woman in the world. Her long gold hair falls to her hips, and snow-white wings sprout from her back; a sultry smile is on her full lips, and she lounges back on the rock with an inviting look in her eyes. That’s when the singing starts.

I have never heard such a voice in my life, lifting my spirits and ridding me of my fear. I grab the wheel of the ship and begin to steer us toward the voice– that is, until a crackling, harsh old voice cries above her:

“I thought I heard the Old Man say, 

“Leave her, Johnny, leave her” 

Tomorrow ye will get your pay 

And it’s time for us to leave her”

All at once I snap out of my reverie and turn to Bill, who has his hands firmly over his ears and is bellowing the song loudly enough to drown out the siren song. Following suit, I slap my own hands over my ears and holler to my crew:

“Cover your ears, lads! That’s an order!”

Only too late do I realize I have us steered towards a mountain of jagged rock.

Boom.

All hell breaks loose as the ship is torn to pieces and the screams of the crew- my crew- fill the air. I only catch glimpses of men flinging themselves off of the ship and towards the woman on the rocks who is now surrounded by dozens more like her.  Song fills the air, and the cries of the damned pierce to my very core. The ungodly cacophony of noise has me doubled over with my hands gripping my head so tight I wonder how I haven’t crushed my skull. A body slams into mine full force, and the last thing I remember is flying off into the freezing water.

When I come to, the only thing I am fully aware of is that my body feels like it has been mangled by a rabid bear– all of my limbs ache and groan with pain. My head aches, and the memories all flood back to me: the ship, the siren, being tossed overboard like a sack of flour… How did I survive? I peel my eyes open, blinking dried salt off of my eyelashes. A high ceiling above me– the crackling of a fire– and the open mouth of a cave hidden by vines. I hear a faint rustling sound as I take in the walls around me– my new prison. But… this is unlike anything I have ever seen before. The cool gray walls are covered in the most intricate and vivid paintings, striking against the stark background. Fields of blue and green, dots of pinks and yellows all depict various scenes. The breath steals from my lungs from the beauty of it all. But what takes my notice is one wall covered in portraits of weather-worn sailors.

I know some of those faces, the thought vaguely worms through my mind. A leathery old apple with one milky white eye stares at me in a familiar stern way. It’s like he’s here. We had only met once, perhaps a year ago now, and had shared tales over foamy mugs of amber ale. Darian was his name. Darian… he was the last person who’d told me the stories of the sirens, and now I was living it. I had called him a crackpot old fool and blamed his babbling on the drink and too many years at the helm.

“T’ere we was, floatin’ along ta water,” he hiccuped and gestured widely with his mug, sloshing some of the liquid out onto the already sticky tabletop. “When suddenly she appeared. Like a ghost she was. N’er heard such a voice ‘n me life, did I lad? Ta crew jumped after her all possessed like, but me? Ya can’t fool me– jumped overboard and swam for the far’test shore.”

“Surely you must have been delusional, my good man!” I cackled and clinked my mug against his. “How else would you have made it back alive?”

A dreamy look filled his good eye, and he breathed a content sigh, “Eyes like whisk’y in ta fire and a heart of ta purest gold she had.”

That was where the conversation made no further sense. I’d finished my beer and returned to my ship, still skeptical of the tales of sirens. But now…

What on earth?

I startle as a figure rises from out of one corner– tall and slender and barely visible from the crackling fire in the center of the cave. As she draws near, my heart slams to a stop in my chest as realization dawns. She’s one of them. Even from this distance, I can tell the way her jaw cuts in a straight line and her cheekbones that look like she is carved in the form of an old statue. Her body is long and lithe like a dancer, and her fiery locks fall in cascading waves down to her hips. Her figure is clad in simple white clothing stained with paint. Across the fire, our eyes meet and the breath catches in my throat.

“I’m Ava,” she finally speaks, soothing and low. “I promise I won’t hurt you… I’m sorry, I don’t know what to call you?”

“C-Christopher,” I blurt out and slap my hand over my mouth, cursing myself a damned fool for telling her my name. She simply nods and takes a seat by the fire. I sit up, suppressing a groan as my old joints creak with pain. A plate of food is sitting next to me, and cautiously I take it up, eating slowly. Piled on the wooden plate is fresh bread, plump ripe grapes, and gamey meat and cheese. I glance up to Ava and almost choke at the way she is looking at me– head tilted to one side like a curious little bird.

That single motion conjures up a memory of one other red-haired beauty, a mirror of something that now seemed a dream. That void opens in my chest when I see her in my mind’s eye. I’d first seen her at a ballet, attending alongside a mate of mine whose fiancee was performing. I would have never thought of going until he mentioned an exclusive party afterward– it had seemed in my young mind a good way to meet a girl for the night. As soon as the orchestra let out the first chord, a sonorous and sleepy fog encased me. I thought then and there of bolting from the room, party or no. But as he’d pointed out his love, my eye caught on another. I was entranced with the way she floated across the stage, an ethereal beauty. Her willowy body carried with poise and grace overshadowed everyone around her. Each movement of hers was fluid and natural, and I’d been enamored in the way the world around me disappeared and it was just her. There were other dancers, yes, but she was all I knew.

I snap back to the present with a scowl. Ava’s expression remains passive but gentle, not showing if she’d even noticed my momentary lapse.

“Your ship is destroyed and your crew is dead, but perhaps you figured that out. My– the others, they won’t come near here so you’re safe as long as you stay with me. I have a boat that you can take– just a small rowboat, but it’s enough to get you to safety. It’s not safe at night, so I’ll get you there by first light.”

Just as convincing as their songs are the words she speaks to me now, so soft and gentle. The bread sticks in my throat as I swallow a bite. Why– why would she do that? All of the legends… all of the stories… the siren that almost killed me, not to mention killed my whole crew– who’s to say she wasn’t just playing a trick on me? Ava seems different– gentler, more cautious of her movements around me, and observant of my body language. It seems like she was treading around me like a frightened animal– that at any strange, unexpected movement I would bolt. Or worse, attack.

In the crackling firelight, Ava’s hair glimmers with highlights of gold and auburn. I glance down at the base of her neck and notice the jewel resting from her necklace– a simple emerald hanging from a golden chain. A small part of me wonders how she got it. We exchange glances and her amber eyes hold mine for a moment before looking away. “Eyes like whisk’y in ta fire”… Dear God, could this be? I think. I press further for answers.

“Why would you save an old sailor like me? Why not just let me drown with the rest?”

Without a word, she looks over my shoulder to the wall behind me. Slowly I pivot around. Whatever blank space was here appears to have been used as a canvas for someone very bored. This wall is covered in vibrant lines of color. Vaguely, the shapes begin to build five different scenes that adorn the space. A vivid beach scene- white sand littered with the dirty brown broken pieces of a ship. Lying among them is a muscular young man, clothes torn and tattered. His face is painted in intense detail, clearly done by a skilled and attentive hand. Another figure is barely visible hiding in a cleft of shattered rock. The only clear part of them is a giant pair of feathery wings, but there is a sense of uncertainty in the way they are hidden. Snow white fingers grip the edge of the rock and one bright whiskey eye pokes out from the hiding space. The sight reminds me of a curious but wary child. No more of this face is visible because all detail seems pinpointed on the man lying lifeless on the sand. His face looks like the statues of Greek gods in glorious splendor, framed by tousled black locks as soft as angel feathers. Every angle and line is distinct and sharp. The lighting, so warm and soft, brings back memories of stretching out in warm sunshine, a stark contrast to the shipwreck scene.

My eyes travel to the next painting, and I recognize the cave we now occupy. The man is cradled across a woman’s lap, the sheet of fiery locks blocking her features from sight but– yes. It’s her. It must be this Ava behind me. But the painted Ava has wings gracefully curving from between her shoulder blades– the Ava behind me has no wings in sight. She is frozen in time, adeptly cleaning the wounds that mar his skin in angry shades of crimson. The man is stuck staring up at her in wonder and admiration, though his pain is clear in his expression. Those eyes, now open, are large and dark in his face. Each brush stroke is precise and concentrated, delicately weaving each piece of the picture together even in its simplicity.

Sweeping colors of burnt orange fade into pale yellows and pinks and then up into the softest sapphire blue. A vibrant sunset so lifelike I can almost feel the warmth of heat-soaked beaches turning into evening cool. Two figures stand intertwined, immersed in a world all of their own. This one tugs a memory from the depths of my mind, pulling it from a dusty cobwebbed corner and shaking loose the taint of time. The memory of a stubborn young man who fell in love with a woman who saw the beauty in this harsh world. A memory of dancing barefoot across silky sand that stuck between the toes. So clearly can I recall the smell of jasmine wafting up from a curly head of ginger locks as we carelessly drowned out the world around us. And as the memory creeps out of the hole in which it was hiding, the tears begin to drip, drip, drip…

The stark difference between this scene and the one beside it chills me to my core. A hand just visible above the glasslike surface of the sea. Ava is on her knees, the terror and pain heartbreakingly tangible as her mouth remains forever open in a scream that I never wish to hear. Her arms are held sharply to the sides by two sirens not respected enough to be graced features in this horror tale while one rips her wings from her body. I am left staring in pure horror at the detail of the downy cream feathers being wrenched mercilessly from her back in a stream of ruby red, dropping like jewels onto the snow-white sand.

The sobs hitch my body as I try to suppress my own pain; I clamp a hand over my mouth to hold in the sounds wanting to break free. The last scene has me staring into a mirror of loneliness. An onyx depth with a body so small and childlike– so helpless. Her back is to the viewer, showing the deep lines of vermillion leaking her life force out of her back onto the ground beneath her. I wrench my eyes away, no longer able to hold myself together enough to take in one more speck of paint. My choking sobs echo through the silence, cutting like a knife.

I knew that pain– I lived that pain every day. It is a gaping abyss that I am on the precipice of, waiting to see if I would leap in and let it finally consume me or endure it staring back in silence. Hiding away, feeling alone. But I’d been surrounded by my crew– the only loneliness I felt was the grief eating at my lifeforce. Ava lived it well and truly alone.

When I turn back around and meet those honey eyes, I find humanness so unlike anything I have ever seen and sadness buried there so deep I could never comprehend. But I can begin to dig beneath the surface and relate to that emptiness. I’d had one year– one whole year with the love of my soul. It was like those stories you read as a child where they fantasized love at first sight, but I was living it. I counted myself lucky every morning that I got to wake up and look at the one most perfect thing in the world. She showed me gentleness and kindness, patience, and such beauty through the world rather than living for money. I had promised to protect her and yearned more than anything to keep that pure heart guarded against the cruelty of the world. But I had been young and foolish– I had fallen into the habit of gambling before I met her. The debts on my head were massive. There were those out for my very life. If I had been home that morning when those men came to collect their payment, I would be buried six feet under in a cedar casket while the world got to benefit from one far more significant than me. I wish it had been me.

They’d kicked in the door. The mahogany table I had inherited from my father was splintered into a thousand pieces. Her precious pots of spices had lain shattered. It would have been merciful for them to have stabbed her through the heart or shot her with a pistol. Now, I wish it could have been that. But they’d tortured her. I was forced to take in her horribly mangled body, the knife marks running up her arm. There were bruises marrying her perfect face. Her eyes were so swollen I didn’t know if they were open or closed when she died. My world ended that day. I’d shut out the beauty in the world and chosen to see it as merciless and cruel.

But here was a creature… no, a person, so very like that one I had lost, untainted by the bitterness of her world. I meet her eyes, a tear trailing its way down my cheek. Kind understanding is in those amber eyes as she gazes back at me.

“My sisters always warned me that men were dangerous as if we weren’t murderers ourselves. They showed me true malice that day,” Ava’s melodic voice fills the space and she rises to her feet. I watch as she walks to the portraits of the men gracing the far wall of the cave. “That’s why I paint them, these men. To remind me of what I lost and what I can still hope to save. That’s why I saved you.”

Her long white fingers reach out to gently touch one of the painted figures, the ghost of a smile across her lips. The stream of tears has slowed now, trickling into my beard with less force. Hastily, I swipe at my cheeks and clear my throat. Ava glances at me over her shoulder with that same sad expression.

“I promise I won’t hurt you,” she repeats that same statement that first greeted me. “I promise that all I want to do is send you home, Christopher.”

“Aye,” I reply with a slow nod. “Home.”

Bibliography:

I am attending Aims to earn my associate’s degree in English to attend UNC and get a degree in English with a focus in Writing, Publishing, and Editing. Writing has always been something I have used to express myself and a way to paint a picture with words for others to enjoy. I grew up with my mom reading stories to me as a child, which spurred my love for literature, and I started writing stories instead of doing my schoolwork when I was in elementary school. What started off as a hobby has now become a passion of mine and I am constantly searching for inspiration from everyday life and other authors in my writing. I was always inspired by Tolkien and Rowling, along with many, many other authors. Tolkien’s storytelling has been a huge influence on my writing, and his ability to build a whole world from words is inspiring. I hope to one day publish a novel, and am grateful for all of my experience at Aims for helping shape me into a better author and creator.