There was a taste in the air. He did taste it, although his lips were pressed firmly together in a clasped defense of wrung creases. It was that salty spray taste that could penetrate even a closed mouth accustomed to sea. He bit against himself until he tasted his blood instead.
He felt for the terror of this night with only his ears, for he also squeezed his eyes tightly so that he could experience, without distraction, the sound that the night and the salty air would carry to his unfettered ears. He thought of the music of the spheres, that harmony of cosmic order heard by Pythagoras. His most modern astrolabe was still a crude instrument, he regretted, yielding only vectors and triangulations, deaf to the blessed vibrations from above. He pivoted his head down in concentration to continue his search.
For now he hoped to hear something divine on Earth.
His balance had motion. There were the rapid forward and backward lurches which were skewed by his subtler left and right list. He flexed and relaxed his muscles and joints in urgent preparation, equilibrating his center of mass to accommodate to the waves of his body. He called upon the strange gravity that poises those who choose to live unanchored to the firm ground, a seaman’s sense that the mundane, the sensible of his time cannot feel when what they pound beneath their feet is firm and adherent and restricts them to shorelines.
His hearing had no such equilibration. His vulnerable ears—open, inviting, and en garde—heard only the nautical wind toward which he feared his heed would be erroneously diverted. His men toiled at their duties on his ship, but each was primarily fearful of their captain’s expected madness. Each knew they had gone too far to be led by a madman. But they obeyed, nevertheless, or so the story goes, when they were ordered to discard the last of the hot wax before pouring it into their captain’s ears. They obeyed, or so the story goes, when they were ordered to tie their captain to the mast as they neared Anthemusa, the island of the daughters of Melpomene. And they dutifully disobeyed, as the story goes, when he ordered them to release him so as to be willingly consumed by the Sirens who sang to him divinely.
The song was of six voices but from three.
He ordered them repeatedly as their captain, warranting the fair justice they would receive for their mutinous refusal. He pleaded with them as their victim, his own salty spray issuing forth from his gasping mouth. The wet binding cut painfully into his ankles and wrists as he flapped and thrashed impotently on the mast like the crying ropes in the wind. His ears could not believe the honored invitation—a request to rejoin the universe in glory.
The rest of the world had no importance at all! He must go, he knew.
But the mast held him fast, its firm curves dissimilar to his own, bruising the very prominences of his spine as he struggled in panic to accept a destiny no one with wax in his ears could understand. He heaved against the mast with all of his might. Its creaking added to his own as he hoped to snap it—he must snap it. He launched himself so mightily that even his men, wide-eyed with horror and amazement, thought he might succeed.
But he might just as well have been impaled.
He slumped in defeat, disgusted with his hated traitors, glaring at them, scorning them for having only wind blowing through their heads. His collapse signaled the knives that cut him away from his crucifix, several of the men lifting him upright.
A final harmony drifted through him from afar.
“Is it safe now, Captain?” they asked. They strained to hear his response through their sealed ears.
“Finally, it is!” he said, searching out each set of eyes that prayed for his good sense to return. “It is safe—for me!” he cried, each flexed elbow carrying a man with him overboard. Falling with them, it seemed so beautiful to him how their howls harmonized with the song from the island.
It was a longer way down to the frigid water than he had imagined. The concussion was his final defeat. When his crew fished him out alone, he had no remorse for his friends who had died by his attempt to reach the singers. As he lay on deck, sputtering and draining brine, he knew that their deaths and all the usual tragedies were jokes.
Neither abandoning Circe nor absence from Penelope, nor even the mixed turmoil of both torments, was a hair’s breadth compared to the miseries of the Sirens’ lure unrequited. His men stood witness to what longing can really be, amazed at how it can drive a man to kill or how it can drive a man to surrender to his inviting killers—surrender to their divine singing his body, his life, his soul—his very reason to exist. But unless one heard what he had heard, no one could conjure the shame and self-loathing that befell all who were to refuse their seduction.
Hundreds of generations ago, he and his men would out-distance their peril, but he knew even in conflict with his rational thought that he would never be whole again until he returned to their sublime melodies that never ceased ebbing in his mind. Worse, this yearning was final and immutable, to be resolved only when these Sirens were to taste of his living flesh. And from the time his mind was so seduced—so poisoned—he was doomed to forever long for this consummation.
There was a taste in the air. Orpheus did taste of it and he relished it. He searched the still, strange night with his eyes and his ears. He saw the stars above, harmonizing in their secret way with the men who toiled at ropes and sails. He heard the music of the spheres, wafting in waves, seeking musical accompaniment.
He swayed, balanced in a complex rhythm with these perceived sounds from above. He would welcome the song of the Sirens as his men readied themselves to enlist his protection. The winds had ceased and the sails were down. The masts were secured and the ship floated, buoyed, with all hands attending on deck. They stood still in relation to the world, the ship gently swaying their feet under them. Soon even the most boorish among them could feel the euphony Orpheus channeled to them from above. The celestial orchestra came around again, but still no accompaniment from the island that sat nearby. Orpheus waited with his men.
They had no fear. They had a different understanding of the Sirens than did Odysseus. There was no wax to plug their ears, only the lyre of Orpheus to stand at the ready to transform the threat into an embrace for the universe which still was playing to them from above. Orpheus understood the meaning of the music of the spheres, the power of the Sirens’ song, the connection between the two that needed a bridge to harmonize the universe.
They all waited. There was no wind. All else was dead silent, save the stars and orbs, lush in their introduction. Once again the melody came around but no one joined in. It was as if the island Anthemusa were waiting for the right moment. The strains became louder and louder to the men, who became more ebullient which each pass of the introduction. Orpheus prayed to the celestial exchange and the music became even louder. By this time the men were chanting, stomping a foot each in unison. The ship throbbed with each collective footfall. The melody came around again. The men were shouting their collaboration, and the ship swayed to the rhythm. Their participation filled the void, it appeared, so just when there seemed no more room for any further accompaniment, the song from the island entered, taking the helm of the opus with the loveliest force of lyrical radiance the world could withstand. A few at a time the men quit, dumbfounded, having no idea the ears could bring such pleasure. They felt the need for communion with the source of this divine elocution. They felt the need, and they saw the reason, for wanting to be consumed by the throats that sang this song.
Orpheus fixed his lyre on his lap and found the right key to complement both the heavens and the island. The world became connected with the stars and the planets above on that magical night. Melodies and counter-themes flowed through his lyre in both directions, the sky and the island each receiving blessings while bestowing them. The men were on their knees, weeping in happiness.
On their island three Sirens sang divinely with the voices of six.
The interposition of notes from the heavens with their own vocal renderings was an epiphany made possible by the bridge of music trafficking across the lyre at sea. The circle rounding the heavens, the lyre, the Anthemusa island, and the heavens continued until the men of the Argo began to softly glow.
Consumption wasn’t necessary after all!
Hundreds of generations ago, he and his men would outdistance the aural waves that splashed against their ears and would live to tell this tale, but they would never get the song out of their heads. Others would call them mad with this affliction, but they would all die happy, with a song in their hearts as well.
It was supposed to be a three-minute, three-chord song with a simple hook, like what could be heard churning the thick, tropical New Orleans gumbo of humidity in any of dozens of venues that evening. The words fit the measures of the song tightly as Rhea sang them over and over. She posed her petite body stiffly, an inert chameleon, the fitful lights changing her camouflage from instant to instant. She had turned her back on her keyboard to face the audience. Only her lips moved, and it was impossible to imagine the power that came from such limited animation unless one were there to hear her. The decibels were not good for anyone’s ears and her vibrato mated with the din.
Then came the familiar rest, when she stopped singing so that the instrumental hook could go around and around. It was a private annoyance among the band members as to when she might jump back in, the circular hook building momentum with each pass, the crowd getting more frenzied with each cycle. Their stomping became her metronome. Her bandmates marveled at the power she seemed to have over her audience but wondered whether it was a good thing. At this point she ran the show, and this tease was one of the two things that had gotten her kicked out of the band before.
She stood on the raised stage and slyly waited, her inanimate stance in contrast to the audience mania below.
The guitars churned out another cycle; still she didn’t jump in. This was the longest she had ever waited and her fellow musicians strummed and plucked and drummed with ever increasing intensity. Then she did what she had promised them she would never do again—the second of the two things that had gotten her kicked out of the band before. The concentration of heads in front of her was solid enough, she calculated, and she dove backwards onto the carpet of hair and hands. The undulating support for her bobbed her this way and that until, like the supernatural properties of a Ouija, she felt she was willing them to send her back to the stage.
By this time there were only a few more octaves to jump within the known limitations of the instruments, so the saxophone player began a pair of rising cords an octave lower than the finishing chords of the guitarist, and the guitarist repeated the trick, creating the sonic illusion that the rise up the frets was never ending. It was a necessity, an emergency: Rhea forced such trickery out of them. Additionally, the bass and drums began to slow down the rhythm to give them more time for their singer who seemed unconcerned. The stomping metronome agreed. The trip up the frets and the sax’s progression up the scale raised the tension of the song, awaiting the hammer blow of Rhea’s voice only her stage presence would provide. The rough mob had a gentle touch in placing her back on the stage—a hive of killer bees beneath the placid illusion of a colony’s singularity. The band, the crowd, the whole world waited for her to join the chant of strings, winds, and skins and the trickery of the never-ending cascade of octaves.
Rhea sang at last.
She belted out the blast that untied the knot that had bound the sound and crowd together. To the crowd it was worth the wait. She brought the acoustic tension crashing down to the home note that defined the song. A great weight lifted from the crowd and went somewhere unknown into the universe. It was less of a hammer blow than it was the uncocking of the hammer of the pistol, perhaps not gently enough to prevent firing. And although it had been worth the wait to the audience, it was a hard day at work for the band.
The walls of sound came crashing down and the crowd had fun. The band slipped back into an instrumental version of the refrain, which Rhea should have overrode with the home note, but instead she paused again. On the backbeat she belt out a vocal attack composed of a wavering, dissonant tritone.
She jumped back into the pit of hands and heads, but the crowd was different. This time the hands were choppy seas, tossing and jolting her. She was rolled face down and saw their eyes—she looked a singular mob right in the eye and became very frightened. This time her will was helpless to drive her back. Hands and elbows struck her in her face, throat, and mouth. At one point she bit to remove two hands at once. The fans slammed her the wrong way some distance before the bouncers ran to her rescue, making a circle of floor for her to alight. She was back on stage quickly.
The guitarist and bass player studied each other and then jumped in with a hard driving heavy metal hook that begged for Rhea. The drummer added a snare and high-hat cadence. She behaved this time, jumping in at the expected time. The place rocked, guitar chords punctuated by drum kit strikes and bass licks, but Rhea heard between the notes.
She heard an ominous musical phrase drifting through the lumineferous aether. She looked into the crowd and saw a man in the back of the room, sipping a tall, dark drink. He was dressed in a businessman’s office uniform, minus the tie and cuff links, his shirt and coat sleeves folded over his forearm the perfect one and a half times. She knew this man. He had hurt her in the past and now wanted to hurt her again. With otherworldly ears she could hear the song from within him, and it grew menacing. She heard his threatening song that brought down any other vibrant songs the world had to offer her. She couldn’t get it out of her head. She was out-of-body by this time, listening to the song from the man, while her body on stage adhered to the band.
Her body felt faint and stopped singing right after a refrain. The band covered for her beautifully, and she sat on a stool and lowered the stage mike to her mouth. She was burning up, she knew. She searched a playlist from deep past her short term memory, past her long term memory, and into her ancient DNA memory. She looked very hard to retrieve it—it was elusive, on the tip of her tongue.
She looked at her body on the stage and at the crowd and began a vocal improvisation. She was back, but she had brought her own music. The band was merely a group of catatonic musicians at this point, obedient servants to her musical will. They kept turning the musical phrase over and over, providing a latticework for her to build upon. The crowd stopped dancing but just stood, staring at the low stage blankly. Their heartbeats began synching to the rhythm from the stage.
Rhea began adding more sophistication to her singing. The song of New Orleans played perfect background voices for her as she conjured up the madness she now knew she could craft. In the background, the song that was New Orleans added a Voodoo counterpoint, and the drummer obediently added his backbeat. She didn’t know how this was going to end, but she was getting even hotter and she was fighting back—naturally, instinctively, and powerfully. The man in the back was smiling slyly, not hiding the thoughts of what he had planned for her later. She took the notes she heard and inverted them back out, and they fit.
All of the women on the floor dropped their drinks, a collapse of shattering glass and the firefly-like cigarettes that fell to the ground as well. To Rhea’s amazement, they all turned to the evil man in the back, caught like an errant child caught in the cookie jar. He was paralyzed, as were the other men in the room. Rhea took a melodic interval and began tightening it into a perfect harmonic interval. And then she sang as two women, accompanying herself, not singing with two voices at once, but singing at two times at once.
Something in the women reached critical mass and they began moving slowly toward the man. They didn’t like him, because Rhea’s song didn’t like him. In fact, her song hated him, so they hated him, too. He stood motionless, completely paralyzed, but completely entranced in the hypnotic suggestion from a song from the stage, and this song now ruled his life.
He walked in a forested area and it was night. There was no moon. Something patchy on the trees fluoresced. He was barefoot and alone. There was a rustling beyond the trees that suggested a threatening pandemonium. Within that was a pipe playing. And carried by the pipe song was panic. He felt the moist fluorescent substance dripping on the trees. It was the blood of something, and it was still warm. The rustling beyond the trees became a bustling that seemed to be moving toward him. The panic swelled. He darted this way and that, the harsh brush debris scratching and splintering into his feet.
What is this? Where am I? he thought in horror. He stooped to pull a large thorn out of his left foot, and when he stood again, there was a sudden blow to his face, slamming his nose upward against its bridge. His eyes shot open and he beheld a naked woman wild-eyed with hate. She spat on him, and then he felt the razor-like pains streak his back by the nails of another. He put out both his arms and fluttered them ineffectively, trying to ward off the razor strikes. When he opened his eyes again, there were a dozen naked women who seemed possessed, and the object of their possession, inexplicably, was his destruction. He slapped this way, punched out that way, bit hands that scratched at his face. One of them kicked in his knee, everting the knee cap, and he fell to one side. On the ground, he assumed a fetal position, balling up in false protection. The onslaught continued unabated. His teeth were displaced at their roots, his eyes were now swollen shut, he tasted blood that was flowing briskly enough to choke him as it fell down his throat. He tried to cry out, but all that he produced was an agonal guttural glottal spasm.
His soul was already in Hell, arriving before his body, which stood in the back of the room at the lounge on Toulouse St. And there, his body saw them as they crowded around him. He was powerless to escape their blows and thrashing, and there were too many of them. They shrieked in madness, shredding him with their nails, and then they proceeded to tear him apart in a Bacchic orgy of retribution. Rhea continued singing even as her temperature fell.
She felt safe. She had brought the Maenads with her tonight, lusting in their brutal assault.
The performance, dedicated especially to the man in the back, was twenty-three minutes of Phrygian fury. By the time the women were finished with him, he was nothing more than a mushy pulp and was pushed out to the courtyard and then thrown in several pieces over the brick fence onto an adjacent property, where the cockroaches fed on him all night. When all of the women were re-assembled, Rhea faded back into the band, which began catching back up with her; and the women and men slowly became animated seamlessly into the dancing that preluded the visit of the Maenads. There was glass all over the floor, and that seemed a complete mystery to everyone. And even stranger, the women wore blood all over their blouses, halters, and dress fronts.
Whatever tension remained in the song was dissipated by Rhea’s return to the home note, conspiring with the group’s telepathically choreographed quadrasonic one-point crash landing, like the beaching of a Homeric ship that had long pined for terra firma.