The Siren and the Seaside Town
The first afternoon that I set foot in Polpota Harbor, I discovered that the room at the Seaside Hotel that my editor had booked for me had been claimed by a man whose body was shaped like a giant sunfish. Mr. Moti, the hotel’s manager, was extremely apologetic, but it seemed as though there wasn’t anything that he could do for me. People made new reservations and canceled them all the time, he explained, and when he ticked off his checklist of excuses as he stood with me on the lush carpet of the hotel’s lobby, his explanations seemed legitimate enough.
I wasn’t in Polpota for the luxurious accommodations anyway. I had come looking for a Siren.
I thought about phoning my editor and complaining about the hotel mix-up but decided it wasn’t worth it. I found a nice little bed and breakfast run by a local couple, one of whom was a bird and the other one of whom was a giant insect creature. When you’re a travel writer, you like to think you get inured to that kind of thing, but the worlds are weird, and Fa’Diel is weirder than most.
After I had a place to drop my stuff, the owners of the establishment suggested I head for a stroll on the beach or to grab a bite to eat at one of the many food stands lining the stone pathways of town. I took their suggestion to heart, if for no other reason than because I was jumpy before my interview. I’d done my homework, made arrangements; she knew to expect me, but after arriving here in Polpota, I found myself curiously anxious, like a teenager before his first date.
Polpota is a beautiful place to walk around. The food turned out to be about what you’d expect from a tropical tourist town (some excellent fish, spiced to perfection, with pineapple and mango and some watery beer on the side), but the architecture is some of the most curious and charming in the worlds. Many of the structures are fashioned from titanic conch and cowry shells, fitted with cloth tarpaulins across their openings so they can be shut against inclement weather. These tarps are in a variety of bright and eye-catching colors that sometimes make the shells look like carnival tents. The trend in Polpota is large, open windows, so brilliant seaside sunlight floods each of these unique buildings.
The streets of the city are mostly clean cut, well kept, and solid stone, but many of the smaller avenues are cobbled, and the many shells mixed in with the cobblestones give them a distinct character. There are dozens of these small cobbled alleys in Polpota, usually leading to an alcove packed with small merchants and the stores of artisans, and a visitor could lose many afternoons exploring them all.
It was after I’d investigated my third one that I reminded myself I was here to see the Siren.
It was late, by that point, and the sun was inching toward the horizon as I made my way back to the bed and breakfast, rationalizing with myself. She wasn’t expecting me today, necessarily. We hadn’t agreed on a date. And Polpota had a lot to offer me—a lot of different angles as a writer. I could probably squeeze two articles out of this trip, maybe three. Maybe more. My editor had given me a fairly generous stipend.
I kept to my room that evening, but the sounds of Polpota’s nightlife drifted in through the open window as I went back over my preparatory notes and composed a brief email to my editor. I distinctly heard steel drums, flutes, and some kind of brass horn I couldn’t identify but put me in mind of a saxophone. The murmur of voices swelled and receded like waves crashing on the shore—a sound I could also hear. I wasn’t quite as close to the beach as I would have been at the Seaside, but it seemed that nowhere in town was far enough from the ocean that you couldn’t hear the waves.
A quick peek out the window showed that much of the waterfront came alive with lights in the evening, and each of the spines on the colossal conch that made up the body of the Seaside Hotel had its own glowing lamp. For the first and only time, I was jealous of the fish-man who’d bullied his way into stealing my hotel room.
The next morning, after breakfast, I chickened out again and went to the beach instead of getting in contact with my interview subject. I figured you couldn’t write a story about a tropical resort town without spending some time on the beach. Surely my editor would agree with me. [Ed.: He’s got a point, though this is obviously still rationalization.]
It was the off season, but I was impressed with how crowded the beaches were regardless. It seems like Polpota is the kind of town that never sees a slowdown in tourist traffic. I asked a few of the beach-side vendors what their business was like at the height of the summer. The first, a rounded character whose skin looked shiny and ceramic, told me that the summer brought heavier business but explained that Polpota and the surrounding area had miles upon miles of pristine, swimmer-friendly beaches—plenty of room to find a place that wasn’t overcrowded.
The other vendor, when I asked him what business was like in the busy season, didn’t do anything but laugh knowingly, revealing a mouth full of golden and gem-encrusted teeth, and offer me a particularly pricey crystal conch. I politely declined.
The beaches in and outside Polpota really do stretch on for miles, white and pure and almost artificial-looking, with soft sand that manages to be almost more enticing than the crystalline water—almost. The beaches of Polpota are the kind that beg you to walk along them far enough to find an unoccupied stretch you can have to yourself, but if I learned anything from the locals, it’s that personal beach space in Polpota Harbor is something of a pipe dream. Besides—if you venture too far outside the limits of town to the area known as Madora Beach, you start to encounter some of the sizeable, occasionally aggressive local fauna. Recommended only for the particularly adventurous or battle-hardened.
When lunchtime rolled around, I decided that I couldn’t put off my interview any longer and hired a local guide to see me outside of town to the Birdcage Lighthouse at Madora Beach, a kind of hermitage/nature preserve where my Siren made her home. You don’t want to try and make your way there without the assistance of someone who knows the area: Madora Beach is actually a series of beaches and jungles along the coast, and an inexperienced traveler can find themselves turned around on one of the jungle paths more easily than you might expect—and that’s to say nothing of the crustaceans the size of Dobermans and the stinging jellyfish that have a habit of venturing out of the water and onto the beaches.
My guide was a lithe, reticent young woman with bushy blonde hair and a confident demeanor. She wasn’t a Polpota native, but she assured me that she knew the city and the surrounding countryside quite well—she was something of a world traveler, evidently—but perhaps most importantly, she knew the Siren who I’d arranged to interview, and she was able to help me negotiate the route through Madora Beach to reach her.
As we walked the paths through the jungle and the route along the coast, I spoke with my guide about her life in the world of Fa’Diel. We spent much of the early part of our journey in silence, but it was not long before she opened up to me, speaking at length about her home outside the town of Domina and the various cities and wilds she’d explored. I had to stop more than once and jot things down in my notebook—there are dozens of articles waiting to be written about Fa’Diel, it would seem.
It took us a little more than three hours to make our way to the Birdcage Lighthouse. There was more than one instance in which my guide told me to be still and went ahead of me to clear the way, using some unknown sense to detect when we were in danger. By the time we reached our destination, an anxiety had settled into my stomach and was threatening to ruin my nerve for the conducting the interview that was the purpose of this excursion outside the comfortable resort town we’d left behind several hours earlier.
The Birdcage Lighthouse was not at all what I’d anticipated. The purpose of a lighthouse, of course, is to steer vessels clear of dangerous and rocky territory, and the shallow sea off the coast of Madora Beach is certainly dangerous. This lighthouse looked nothing like any other lighthouse I’d ever seen or even heard described. Bent, deliberately woven branches snaked in an out of each other to create a colossal, domed canopy, more like an aviary than a lighthouse. At the apex of the great verdant structure was a tiny cupola in which a brilliant, magical flame glowed. Flowering plants blanketed the walls of the lighthouse and created a patchwork of colors.
When you envision a Siren, you cannot help but picture her as beautiful, and Elle is certainly beautiful. When you think about an individual whose very voice lures men to their untimely destruction, however, you might be inclined to picture an element of the sinister in her appearance, and there is no trace of this in Elle.
She’s no longer a young girl but looks like she could be one. Most everything about her feels vaguely floral—her face has the hue of a light rose, her eyes are a haunting shade of lilac—to say nothing of her wings, enormous, billowing appendages which bear almost as much resemblance to flower petals as they do to avian wings.
Elle greeted us by saying she was pleased to sit down and chat with me, explaining that the Birdcage Lighthouse gets few visitors despite its location. I found it a little hard to believe, looking through the tree-branch walls of the structure at the crystalline ocean that surrounded us. Somehow I managed to pull out the pad of paper on which I’d written my interview questions and began in earnest.
The irony of a Siren living at a lighthouse doesn’t really need to be explained, but after speaking with Elle for several hours I began to unravel the paradox. To hear her tell it, a Siren’s song ensnares more than just the attention of passing sailors—there is an element of the haunting melody that compels the performer, as well. For Elle, dwelling in the lighthouse is a kind of courtesy to the outside world, a safeguard against harming others through her desire. She feels bound to sing—cannot imagine living without her music.
“The song is the thing,” she said, when we came to the topic of the shipwreck that occurred off the coast of Polpota several years ago. “The sailors never even entered my mind.”
I believe her, and to judge by the expression that crossed my guide’s face at the mention of that incident, I’m not the only one who does.
I asked her if she had ever dealt with criticism, with resentment, or even hostility as a result of her compulsion to sing. She nodded, and by the way she chewed on her lip I knew I ought not to press any further.
We talked about a great number of topics over the course of several hours, but somehow nothing stuck with me more than that—the declaration of her powerful need to sing, and her decision to take up residence in the lighthouse in order to in some measure atone for the destructive side-effects of her passion.
I have been weighing in my mind ever since the question of whether or not I could make such a sacrifice, and I have yet to come up with an answer.
As the sky began to darken and my guide and I contemplated the long hike through the dangerous jungle in the encroaching twilight, Elle favored us with a song. It was a beautiful melody, magnified by the unnatural power of her voice, and I found myself powerfully drawn to her—in fact, my guide put her hand on my shoulder before I realized I had taken a step toward the Siren—but amidst the enthralling tune were notes of unmistakeable sadness.
I bid Elle farewell and thanked her profusely for her time, and she was very gracious in her reply. She invited me to return if ever I was in Polpota again, and I promised that I certainly would. Instinctively, out of politeness, I returned the sentiment—offering to host her should she ever venture out of Fa’Diel—and the forlorn look in her eyes as she thanked me made me immediately wish that I hadn’t.
My guide led me out of the verdant dome of the Birdcage Lighthouse, and I noted as we passed through its archway how open and airy it seemed. The cool breeze coming off the ocean was inviting, as though the world was beckoning.
Far in the distance, along the coast, I could see the glow of the lights from Polpota Harbor.