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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Song Below Water

A Novel

Bethany C. Morrow

Tor Teen




It feels redundant to be at the pool on a rainy Saturday, even though it’s spring, and even though it’s Portland, but maybe I’m just more of a California snob than I want to be. Back home I went to the beach on more than one cloudy day. I’d stand on the cold sand, burrowing my toes beneath the surface as though there’d be some warmth there, and I’d listen. Just like I’m doing now.

I always close my eyes, and today’s no exception. It’s never made a difference but it’s part of the ritual, and I guess it must mean something that I did it even before I knew there was a way for living sirens to listen for their dead. It was one of the first things I learned when I finally found “the network,” so despite my lack of results thus far, I close my eyes now too.

The problem is I don’t know exactly what I’m listening for. The story goes that sirens originated by the water, that once we used our calls to damn seamen, and that when we die, our voices return to the sea. If the mythos is to be believed—and as far as any nonmagic people are concerned, most of it isn’t—I should be able to hear my grandmother here.

Here, Portland; not here, the Southwest Community Center, specifically. I mean, I’m at an indoor pool with all its colorfully elaborate water features that nobody is enjoying because my play-sister’s the only person doing laps. Even if sirens’ voices really do return to the water, they probably don’t go to chlorinated bodies of it.

The problem with mythos is that it varies too much for any one interpretation to be believed. Do sirens’ voices return to the body of water near where they were born, or close to where they died? Do sprites have a physical body and are they just too quick to see, or are their forms entirely ethereal? Do elokos have to be self-obsessed phonies, or have I just been lucky to know that exact type?

Who knows. I guess it depends on what movie or song or TV show shaped which decade. It doesn’t really matter when what the world believes about you isn’t a matter of life and death. And it isn’t. Unless you’re a siren.

Anyway, I have another problem: I wouldn’t know Gramma’s voice if I heard it. We lived in neighboring states my whole life, she in Oregon and me in Cali, but we never met. If what the network taught me about how a siren listens for her ancestors ever worked, I still wouldn’t know when I’d found her. I’ve got no lullabies, no loving nicknames, and zero turns of phrase to confirm her identity. Just my hope that like recognizes like.

The community center receptionist did me a solid and let me accompany my sister, Effie, free of charge, since we’re here for Effie’s conditioning, and I never get in the water. I always hang way back so the girl doesn’t think I’m trying to sneak a swim, so when I find I’ve gotten close to the pool’s edge, I pin my arms behind my back—no one dives with their hands behind them!—and take a break to watch Effie for a while.

Beneath the water, she’s got her feet hooked together, one leg behind the other so tight that not even the water can get between them. This is how she swims when she wants to go fast, when she’s done her breathing exercises, and her underwater twirls and arches and hypnotizing glide. She doesn’t look like a mermaid now. For one, she’s abandoned the dramatic dolphin kick that her audience so loves. Right now, she looks like something sleeker. Something that cuts the water instead of dancing in it.

To clarify, Effie’s not a real mermaid, she just plays one on TV. By which of course I mean at the Renaissance faires. (Obviously, play-sister means we’re not actually related by blood either, but “real” doesn’t apply to family.) With her tail on and with the way she swims—and if you ignore basically everything known about mermaids—it isn’t hard to believe she’s legit. Every time I see her slip into character, I believe. And I wish I were something else.

Anything else.

A wave of chlorine rushes me and the smell is so intensely antiseptic that for a moment I’m back in the sterile hallway of a hospital I haven’t seen since my parents finally got me the hell out of Santa Cruz.

I must’ve closed my eyes again because when the shock of that memory recedes, Effie’s almost out of the water and her sopping wet twists cascade over her shoulders to hide her face while she reaches for her towel. She keeps it on a plastic chair so close she can be covered before anyone gets a good look at her skin, which never looks as parched as she thinks. The lifeguard I’m not supposed to tease her about takes the opportunity to check on the other end of the pool, verifying that it is indeed still uninhabited, and I nod. Good boy.

Effie catches my eye and gives me one of her smirking smiles, like she does when I describe her as golden-brown instead of whatever criticism she’s just given herself. She’s heading to the showers now; she’ll be back in five or so minutes (longer if she gets distracted trying to lotion away her dry patches), and then we can head home. But I don’t trust my mind to keep me company anymore, so while I wait, I pull out my phone to catch up on my favorite vlogger.

I’ve been watching Camilla Fox’s eponymous YouTube channel for the past two years. I’ve studied her wash-and-go technique, I’ve acquired a small kingdom’s worth of natural hair products at her recommendation, and I still have not cracked the secret of her bounce and style preservability. In the tutorial, she cuts to a later date and—through the magic of the satin bonnet and silk scrunchies (and the patience not to bunch her hair haphazardly into both)—her two-day-old wash-and-go always looks better than my day one. Of course, if we could crack her secret, she probably wouldn’t have three and a half million subscribers. There’s something she knows that we don’t, or she’s a muse (if they still exist), or anyway she’s just hair divinity walking among us.

She’s my patronus. When I can’t deal with real life, I escape into her virtual space, where everything is perfectly lit, perfectly coifed, and perfectly accompanied by neo-soul music I never hear anywhere but natural hair videos and the beauty supply shop.

But something’s off. Not with the perfection that is Camilla Fox; I haven’t gotten to her channel yet. It’s the fact that, because I’m a subscriber who watches little else these days, Camilla’s face should be the first thing I see when I open the app. Except under “Recommended,” there’s another familiar face staring back at me. Another Black girl—a woman—from southern Oregon. Only this one’s dead.

I recognize Rhoda Taylor even though she hasn’t been in the press much. Her picture showed up on the evening news the weekend after her live-in boyfriend murdered her, but only because social media had been circulating it and demanding to know why no one seemed to be saying her name. Now there’s a BREAKING NEWS banner under her picture—and it isn’t a picture I’ve seen before.

I shouldn’t open the video and I definitely should’ve muted it first, but it feels like there’s a tornado in my guts and I’m not thinking straight. My throat feels hot, like someone’s striking metal against a flint.

Rhoda Taylor.

Recent murder victim.

Suspected siren.

I only catch fragments. It doesn’t matter; I already knew. As soon as I saw the thumbnail photo, I knew. There’s only one reason a dead Black woman would suddenly make the news, only one reason her boring HR employee photo would be replaced with one where Rhoda’s eyes are red from the flash and her mouth is open like she’s in the middle of talking. Or moaning. However they’re implying we entrance our hapless victims.

The defense is saying the deceased was a siren.

Which means maybe she wasn’t a victim after all.

The video has captions, so when I realize the community center has great acoustics, I finally mute it. It doesn’t stop the familiar, unsympathetic voices from blaring in my head.

Sirens, they say, and anyone listening knows it’s a dirty word.

Danger, they report, and they’re talking about the danger she posed, never the danger we face.

The world is closing in on me, and in the community center, I feel the wall at my back. There’s a wet echo all around, and it’s sad, but I’m relieved when I remember that I’m alone. The news people, the talking heads who for once will all agree with each other, they aren’t talking about me—at least not as far as they know. My chest is jumping with a jackrabbit pulse and it’s beginning to hurt.

But no one knows.

I’m still safe.

I must have slid down the wall because soon I find myself sitting on the floor. If it’s damp, I don’t notice. If I’ve lowered myself into one of the many wayward puddles decorating the pool area, I can’t tell. What matters is that no one can look over my shoulder. No one can see what I’m seeing—even though according to the viewer count, literally thousands of people already have.

I turn off my phone; this is something not even the iconic Camilla Fox, naturalista goddess, can fix.

Because Rhoda Taylor was a siren. Like me.

I think I’m going to be sick.

Copyright © 2020 by Bethany C. Morrow