The sea off Dapit-Hapon holds untold magic. That much I’ve always known. When I was small enough to fit in the crook between her lap and her belly, Mama would tell me of the enchanted waters and the secrets they hold, her golden shell necklace warm against my cheek as she spoke of the sirena with their scales of every color, and their voices beautiful enough to drown sailors.
Mama was a sirena herself. Three years ago, after she got sick, she returned to the sea, trading her legs for a shimmering tail, and trading me and Papa for the waves.
“If you look out onto the water at sunrise or sunset, you might catch a flicker of her scales,” he’d told me. “When you do, know that she’s watching over you.”
And so every day since, I’ve woken up before the stars wink out, just to catch a glimpse of her on the horizon.
It never comes.
But today is different.
Today marks exactly three years since Mama left, and I’m determined to find her again. The town elders say that, today, the stars will fall into the sea, making the reclusive sirena seek shelter closer to land. This time, I’ll find her.
I wake up before the night hides its crescent-moon smile, before Papa and the other fisherfolk take their nets out to sea. I pause by his door and lay my palm gently against it.
These days, he’s far from the jolly, round man he’d once been before Mama left. He’s grown gaunt, brown skin papery, cheeks always sunken and mouth forever turned down. But he never fails to promise me that Mama will come home. And so I promise him in return:
“I’ll bring her back. I’ll find her and bring her back to us.”
With Mama’s golden shell necklace hanging from my neck, I run across the street to Dayaw’s house. Standing beneath a lamp pole, I throw pebble after pebble onto the wooden walls until Dayaw comes out, sleepily rubbing their eyes.
“Today’s the day,” I tell them with a shaky smile.
I can’t do this without Dayaw. We’ve been at each other’s side since we were babies, never carrying out a hare-brained scheme without the other there beside us. They know how much this means to me.
“We’ll find her, Kalyani,” they say, their voice gentle and sure.
Hand in hand, we make our way down to the beach as dawn sheds her cloak and opens her single fiery eye.
We take Papa’s boat out to the graveyard, named not for its human dead but for the remains of sea creatures that time has washed upon its shore. It’s here where the ocean’s magic is strongest, where the townspeople catch sight of creatures of myth. Only the bravest of fisherfolk dare to sail their boats by, afraid of encountering sea monsters or waking old, drowned ghosts. But I know this place, and it knows me. For years, Dayaw and I have picked along its shores for bits of shipwrecked treasures from bygone ages. We’ve played along the sand banks, never worrying about deep-water curses or the horrors of the depths. The townspeople of Dapit-Hapon have always treated me, a sirena’s child, as an oddity, but the graveyard has always welcomed me into its waters. It’s always known me for what I am— a daughter of the sea.
I’ve spent the past three years gathering stories. The residents of Dapit-Hapon leave the sirena alone out of fearful respect, because though some are benevolent guardians, others are just as happy to sink boats and call down storms with their song. But that distance only seems to make people want to tell more tales, and I know that in the myths, there are kernels of truth.
It’s here, amongst towering arches of whalebones and the tidepools which shelter moon jellies, where we search for clues that will lead us to the sirena.
The stories tell of a grave right on this atoll. In days long past, a sirena fell in love with a passing fisherwoman and spent the rest of her life with her. Upon her death, she told her love to bury her here, where they first caught sight of each other. The stories also say that among her grave goods is a conch shell horn that, when blown, will lead her back to her sirena kin, but only one of their kind can use it.
In the end, we find the grave just where the stories say it should be: the point of the graveyard closest to Dapit-Hapon, where the lovers had made a home.
With murmured prayers to the sirena’s soul, we begin to dig, and it isn’t long before the sand gives way to a slab of smooth, white stone.
It takes us the better part of the morning, but eventually, we’re able to get rid of it, the stone crashing onto the sand with a crunch, revealing the sirena’s bones beneath.
I look into the grave, mouth hanging open as I take in the sight of the sirena’s serpentine bones surrounded by intricately worked gold and beautiful painted ceramics, bits of coral, and seashells in every color of the rainbow. She’d been loved well in life if someone had taken care to bury her with so much treasure.
I look over each shell, wondering which of them is the fabled horn. There are cowries and cockles, limpets and clams, and I trace their shapes with my fingers until, at last, I come upon a giant conch, striped red and white.
I lift it out of the grave, setting it down gently on the sand. I move to replace the giant slab of stone when Dayaw stops me.
“We can’t just take it,” they say, gaze going to the conch and then the gap in the grave from where I’d lifted it. “You have to leave something in its place.”
“But I didn’t bring anything with me,” I say, only then feeling the weight around my neck.
Dayaw looks at it too— my mother’s necklace.
I wrap a protective fist around it, shaking my head. “No,” I say.
“It won’t matter once you find her again,” they say.
I look at the necklace, the midday sun dancing upon its shining surface. I don’t want to leave it behind, but Dayaw’s right. The conch is what’s important.
Fingers trembling, I slide the cord off my neck and lower it into the grave.
After, I watch the waves lap onto shore, the sea touching land, the fisherwoman and the sirena finding their way back to each other. Just like how I’ll find my way back into Mama’s arms.
We make our way back to Dapit-Hapon in silence. That necklace was the last piece of Mama that I had, after Papa gave away most of her things. He couldn’t stand to look at them after she left. Now, it feels as though she’s slipping away again, water running through my fingers, rushing back out to sea.
I grip the conch in my hands, telling myself that it will all be worth it in the end.
As the boat’s motor starts up, I look out into the horizon, knowing that soon, everything will be okay.
I come home to Papa’s fury.
Having seen Dayaw off, I open the door to my house as quietly as I can, but it’s no use. Papa’s sitting at the dining table, his expression like stone when he catches sight of me.
“I tried looking for you all morning,” he says through gritted teeth. “Where were you?”
Squaring my shoulders, I tell him the truth. “I went out to the graveyard with Dayaw. We found the sirena’s grave. We found the conch, and I’m going to use it to bring Mama home.”
His fist slams against the table, and I jump back.
“Kalyani, do you hear yourself? You’re too old to believe in those fairytales. You can’t just go around putting yourself in danger, you know better than that. And you know better than to believe that you can bring her back.”
“But I can. I’ll find her, I swear I will! You just have to let me try. Please.”
He shakes his head. “No. You won’t leave this house unless I say you can.”
“I could have lost you too.” His voice breaks, tears spilling from his eyes. “Kalyani, you’re all I have left,” he sobs. “I can’t lose you too.”
Through my own tears, I look at him, remembering the man who used to carry me on his shoulders, who used to bring me on his boat to see all the best places to catch fish. He looks so much older, as though Mama’s leaving has stolen decades from him. With her gone, it’s as though I’ve lost both of them.
When I bring Mama home, I won’t just bring back her smiles and her stories. I’ll have Papa’s back too.
Sobbing, I hug him. He holds me close, burying his face in my hair. I don’t tell him I’m sorry. I don’t tell him that I won’t do it again, because I will. Seeing him like this only makes me more determined to bring Mama home to us.
After dinner, Papa locks me in the room I used to share with Mama.
“It’s only until after I come back from fishing,” he says, voice muffled through the door. “I can’t have you try again. I won’t let you put yourself in danger.”
I hear him sigh when I refuse to answer. Eventually, I hear his footsteps retreat into his own room.
I lie awake for what feels like hours.
I look at what used to be Mama’s side of the sleeping mat, imagining her here with me, telling me bedtime stories. She used to tell me about the sirena as she brushed my hair, about their gemstone scales and their salt scars, born from warring with sharks and giant squid. When I’d asked her why I didn’t have a tail, she’d told me that I was born to walk on land, to dance beneath the sun.
I wonder if she hated it, the steadiness of land compared to the ebb and flow of the sea, the scorching heat of the sun instead of the cold embrace of the deep. I wonder if that longing was strong enough to make her leave me behind.
Just as the tears begin to fall, I hear a thump outside my window. I turn over and close my eyes, imagining it to be a branch caught in the wind. But then it comes again, and again. Thump. Thump.
Sighing, I stand and make my way to the window, pushing open the wood-and-capiz panels only to see—Dayaw.
They’re standing outside holding a handful of pebbles, dropping them as soon as they catch sight of me. They wave me over, and I frantically gesture at them, worried that Papa has heard the commotion.
I focus on the silence for a moment, listening for the sound of footsteps. When none comes, I bring a chair to the base of the window and clamber up.
Dayaw opens their arms, trying to catch me though it’s not a far drop.
I jump out and we land in a tangle of limbs, and the moment we right ourselves, we hurry towards the beach.
It’s still dark out. All the town’s fisherfolk are asleep. Far above us, just as the elders said, the stars have begun to fall like tears, streaking silver across the night sky. Beyond the shoreline, the sirena must be seeking shelter.
Heart pumping, I run towards Papa’s boat, still right where I’d docked it, and I let out a sigh of relief when I find the conch shell still tucked under the seat. I unwrap it and hold it close, feeling its unusual warmth against my skin like a sun-touched sea.
“Get in!” I tell Dayaw, and as soon as they bundle their limbs into the boat, I push it out onto the water, scrambling onto it once I’m drenched up to my knees.
Once I turn the motor on, we’re catapulted out to sea, racing across the waves as the wind whips at our faces.
The sirena are known for their love of far-off places, so Dayaw and I keep going until there’s no sight of home, using only the stars to guide us. It’s out here, where few people dare to sail, that I stop the boat.
“Do you think this will work?” I ask Dayaw as they hold the conch shell out to me.
“Does it feel right?” is their only response, and by the way my heart skips a beat, feeling the pull of the deep dark undertow, I can tell that the answer is yes.
Legend says that only a sirena can blow this horn. My mother is one. If the sea runs through her veins, then it also runs through mine. Let that be enough.
I don’t hesitate. I take a deep breath, large enough to make my lungs ache, and I blow on the conch with all my might.
The resulting echo carries out over the horizon, and I imagine that, up above, more stars are drawn down just to hear the sound.
For a moment, nothing happens. The world holds its breath. Even the seagulls flying high above us stop their squawking.
And then the ocean begins to glow.
A single line of sparkling silver trails down from the conch and into the water, causing light to swirl around the waves. It spreads and spreads until eventually the whole ocean looks as though each and every star in the sky has fallen into its depths.
A thread of gold unravels from the conch, cutting through the surf like a fishing line. Instinctively, I know to follow it, starting the motor back up as we chase down the trail.
It leads us all the way to a collection of deserted islands, clumped together like a school of fish. At the end of the largest island’s shoreline is a grotto, and it’s here that the thread of gold tapers off, disappearing into the sea like paint fading into water. The water is shallow here, so I beach the boat and jump into the surf, Dayaw right behind me. Together, we make our way to the grotto’s entrance.
The sound of the waves almost drowns it out, but from within, I hear singing.
Dayaw and I share a determined look before we press on, hand in hand as the saltwater drags at our heels and we prepare to face the song of the sirena.
Inside, the water loses its silvery glow, the bright shimmer replaced by a faint green light.
When I look up, I catch sight of thousands upon thousands of glowworms, and I can’t help but gasp in wonder. Behind me, Dayaw suddenly stops, their grip on my hand tightening.
I draw my gaze back down to find that we’re not alone here, far from it.
Eyes of every color look back at us from the dim— acid green, aquamarine, lavender, sable black, ash gray, electric blue, bright gold.
I freeze just as the last of the sirena’s song breaks off with a discordant note, cutting through the air between us.
“I— I —” I stutter, taking in the sight of what must be a dozen sirena staring at me, their gemstone-colored tails lashing the water. My words stay caught in my throat until Dayaw gives my hand a reassuring squeeze.
“I’m here to find my mother,” I say, and this time, my voice is steady. “Her name is Marilag of Dapit-Hapon, and she is one of you.” Sweat drips down my brow as a dozen creatures of myth scrutinize me.
They’re all beautiful, the sirena, but I remember how some of them can sink entire ships with their song, feasting on those who drown. Before finding a human to love on land, had Mama been that way, or had she been one of the benevolent ones, leading ships safely to shore? Now that I’m face to face with them, I find it easy to imagine her among their ranks— her eyes had been bronze, her hair had been black, and her voice had been sweet. She’d fit right in amongst these creatures of the deep.
A sirena swims towards me, crossing the distance between us in a single flick of her indigo tail.
She takes my face in her hands, examining my features, maybe looking for the ones I share with my mother.
“Marilag was the name she’d borne on land,” she says, her voice dark and sweet. “Among us, her kin, her name had been—” she says something then, something I don’t understand. What comes from her mouth sounds like the calm rush of the surf at sunrise.
“Do you know where she is?” I ask, desperate, “is she with you?”
“Child, how I wish that were so,” she says, shaking her head. “But once a sirena gives up her scales, she can no longer brave the deep. She was ours, once, but she died human.”
I take a step back, as though I’d been struck. Died?
“No. You’re wrong. She isn’t dead. S-she left because she missed the sea. She just wanted to come home. Where is she? Why are you keeping her from me?”
Another sirena comes closer than the rest, one whose hair is green as sunlight through the forest canopy. “Perhaps you were too young to remember, or perhaps your father kept you away, but her body was turned to ash and scattered over the sea. In the end, she did come home to us.”
Another one, with russet lips and golden eyes, draws near and runs her fingers down my cheek. Her hand is cold, but her touch is somehow comforting.
“That is the only way a sirena can regain the sea.”
“You’re wrong.” I shriek, tears pouring down my face. “Papa told me she left. He wouldn’t lie to me. He wouldn’t.“
The golden-eyed sirena puts her hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps it was a lie he told to convince himself, too. Grief makes us believe that there are other worlds, other lives we lead in which we never lose the ones dearest to us.”
Dayaw steps closer to me, their arm going around my shoulders. I lean against them, their support keeping my knees from buckling.
All this time, I’d believed that there was a way to bring her back, to make my family whole again. I thought that if I could sail far enough, brave the seas long enough, then I could bring her home. But death is an ocean I can’t swim across.
“Is there really no way to bring her back?”
The golden-eyed sirena says, “When one of our kind passes, her soul becomes untethered, and she is free to roam all the heavens and the seas. But there is a way to call her back down to earth.”
The indigo-tailed sirena makes her way to me, ordering the one with the golden eyes to stand down.
“You should not have said anything,” she says to her kin. And then she turns to me. “Magic on that scale comes at a cost. But its toll will not be exacted from you. It will be exacted from your mother. Just as a sirena cannot return to the sea when she sheds her scales, her soul cannot return if it is called down to earth. All the sea and sky is open to her now. To call her would mean to trap her on the earth where she died.”
My heart sinks. I imagine it— seeing Mama again, having her close to me, bringing her home— only for her to become trapped on earth, beyond the reach of the sky and the sea.
Trembling, I look at Dayaw. “What do I do?” I ask. “I want to see her again, but I can’t do that to her.”
“You’ve come this far,” they say. “This is a choice only you can make.”
I close my eyes, remembering the feeling of being little again, tucked safe in Mama’s arms. I remember her familiar warmth, the scent of sea salt in her dark hair, the ocean-wave cadence of her voice as she told me stories. I remember her laughing as she dove off the bluffs that lined our island, limbs moving gracefully in the water, the horizon in her eyes. If there was ever anything she loved as much as Papa and me, it was the sea. And I would never dream of taking that away from her. Not even if it meant seeing her again. But still—
“Is there… is there really no other way to have her here with me again?” I ask.
The indigo-tailed sirena places a hand on my shoulder. “Return home. Honor her memory. If you remember always that she loved you more than the ocean loves the sky, then she won’t ever leave you. Find her in the sunrise. Find her in the stars.”
The sirena with the forest green hair holds something out to me. It’s a single scale, shining blue and gold like sunlight on water. Mama’s favorite colors.
“This belonged to her,” the sirena says. “We keep a scale from all our lost kin. She would have wanted you to have it.”
I take it with trembling hands, a sob escaping my lips as I hold it up to the light. It’s a piece of her. My one real piece of her. It’s warm to the touch, and when I close my fist around it, it feels as though she’s holding my hand.
This is it, then.
I can’t have her back. I can’t bring her home. I’ll only ever have this piece of her.
But if that means that her spirit is free to roam the wind and the sea, then so be it. I’ll still have her love. I’ll still have her stories. Just because she isn’t here doesn’t mean that she isn’t with me. She always will be.
“Go now,” says the sirena with the indigo tail. “Tell the stories she told to you. Love them well and pass them down. That way, her love for you will endure the ages.”
Their arm around me, Dayaw leads me out of the grotto as the sirena follow, gliding in the water, graceful as birds, before they bid us farewell and swim off into the distance.
Above us, the sky has grown blush pink with early dawn. Dayaw and I remain on the shore, sitting on the sand for hours. I look up at the fading stars and the dawning sun, knowing that, out there, in the wide beyond, Mama is watching over me.
Eventually, Dayaw stands and offers me their hand. I take it, and we make our way back home.
When we reach Dapit-Hapon, Papa’s there waiting for us on the shore.
I make my way out of the boat and run towards him, the two of us falling into each other’s arms. He lets out a sigh of relief against my hair, his fingers trembling as he holds onto me.
The moment he lets go, I hold the scale out to him, and he falls onto his knees with a sob.
“She’s gone,” I say, hugging him tight. “She’s gone, but she’ll never really leave us.”
For a moment, I stand there on the beach with Papa and Dayaw, listening to the crashing of the waves.
One day, I’ll ask Papa why he felt the need to comfort me with a lie. One day, he’ll give me an answer. But for now, I take his hand in mine.
One last time, I look out into the water. And just as we turn to go, I see a flicker of blue and gold on the horizon, as though welcoming me home.