Mother had spent her night silent, hunched on cold stone of the ruined watch room, but as the first rays of dawn hit the lighthouse and warmed her face, she began humming softly. Morina's blood quickened in anticipation; she stepped on the open gallery and spread her arms. Her body cleared spaces inside for the fullness of song. She glanced at Mother's limp, tattered wings and eyes glazed blind by cataracts, and wondered how long Mother could continue to sing. Then the hum became a lyric and Morina saw Mother sit upright, smiling softly, her chest heaving to power the song.
The pain came suddenly as always to Morina, sharp with ecstasy. And then, glorious then, her arms began transforming. The plumage that burst out this time was scarlet, edged with gold. She fanned out her feathers as Mother's aria seeped into her and glistened on her wings. It amplified, it reverberated. The lyric was one of Morina's favorite: a story of human love and longing.
The morning sun laid bands of light on the sea. Content and relaxed, Morina pushed her legs against the stone slabs and let the song lift her into flight. She peered down, eager for listeners.
No boats. None at all. No adventurers traveling from afar, braving shoals and reefs for the intoxication she brought. No stray fishermen who paused to listen. No humans proffering gifts in exchange. This was the third day of barren waters, the third song going waste.
Morina flew on, letting music swell inside her. She almost drifted to the other lighthouse, but caught the whiff of the other song sisters in time, and swerved to avoid their territory. Onwards. It was a while later that she looked down and realized she was closer to the fishing village than she had ever been before.
A dirty collar of sand and shingle. Waves throwing up shells, and splattering foam as they withdrew. A young boy was playing in the waters. She swooped down to pour her gift song over him. If he felt the rapture and offered himself in return, Mother would be able to add the richness of childhood joys to her lyrics.
The boy's head jerked up. His eyes enlarged as his gaze locked on her face. "Help!" His body turned rigid, and his face contorted in a mixture of rapture and fear.
Morina rose again, puzzled at the rejection, the fear. Did soul songs not work for the young of humans? The men she had charmed had never shouted for help.
A fragment of shrill music shattered her song, hit her like a whiplash. The spaces inside her collapsed, crunching her bones and retracting her wings which tore flesh with the abruptness of their withdrawal. Her legs, thinned in the transformation, throbbed with pain as flesh poured back into them. Terror seized her. The shrill, cacophonic music from the shore continued to pound her body. She flapped her arms uselessly as if they were still wings, but she plummeted into the sea.
Water, cold and briny, flooded her lungs. She coughed and tried to thrash her way to the shore, forcing her bruised and weak body to obey her. Waves tossed her around, then flung her on the beach, hard against broken shells and pebbles.
Humans were shouting and running towards her; she looked at them with hope. But they stopped at a distance.
"Looks like a woman to me," someone said.
Morina shook herself to brush off the sand. No one could mistake her for a human woman, not with the scales that covered her torso. Nor was she wearing the garments women wore. These humans only had to look more closely to recognize her as a bringer of songs.
"No, it's a monster," said a man, voice flooded with anger. "But where are its wings? I saw it flying."
Morina opened her mouth, about to explain that she was a singing sister, when stone hit her. Shocked, she clutched her head to staunch the blood.
"It bleeds!" A woman, gleeful.
More angry voices rose, and Morina heard snatches of talk of evil ones and murderers. Clearly they had mistaken her for some sky monster but Morina's tongue felt thick and heavy and her head was hurting and she could barely whimper. Then the hiss and spit of hateful mutters began fizzling out, and Morina saw the crowd part to make way for a thin, robed man who was waving something shiny.
"Quiet!" he said to the men and women when he reached closer to her. His voice was and commanding.
Morina blinked and focused on the golden, triangular object in the man's hand: it was a stringed instrument. Even as she watched, he plucked a string and the awful music rose again, punching her breath out. She cringed. So this was where that sound came from.
"Fear not, brothers and sisters, I can control it." The man strummed again, forcing her to double over in agony. Fear parched her throat.
Soft murmurs rippled through the crowd, and then a woman spoke. "Preacher, what will you do to it?"
The man--the preacher, as the woman called him--grabbed Morina's hair and began dragging her over the sand and over sharp rocks that snagged her skin. Blood trails darkened the sand behind her. Some scales fell off her torso; she saw a child pick one up, and a woman slap the child's hand to make it drop the scale.
"Good men and women, there is naught to fear." The preacher waved the instrument. "None of its kind dare harm you for I shall silence them."
Morina wanted to plead that she was no monster, but her breath was too ragged and many of the men and women staring at her held rocks in their hands. All she managed to do was send a prayer to her gods to spare her more torture. Then she was thrown onto the hard floor of a boat, and the preacher stepped into the boat and loomed over her. The crowds were now ringed around them.
"I shall destroy it now," the preacher told the people. "My protection over you shall continue in my absence." He gestured as if about to touch a string on his hated instrument and Morina flinched and almost closed her eyes. The crowd laughed. Some men leered and made crude gestures. Children peeped from behind their mothers' skirts, but the women clamped their hands over their eyes.
The preacher began rowing, his stringed instrument in his lap, his expression bland, emotionless, devoid of the anger and fright the people on the beach had shown.
"I know you are Raina's daughter," he said when the coast was merely a faint line on the horizon. "They would have stoned you to death if I hadn't arrived in time. If you promise not to try and escape, I will not play my balalaika."
She nodded, not that she had a choice. Anguish was bubbling in her; she managed to pour it into words. "They thought I was a monster."
"You take souls," he said. "So you are a monster."
This preacher was mistaken. "I only take souls offered to me by people who enjoy my songs," Morina said. Men would fling their arms in a gesture of surrender when she carried songs to them, and she'd then swoop close, continuing to shower them with song, and their silvery souls would slide out of them and into her, refreshingly cool and juicy orbs to give Mother.
The preacher's voice broke sharply through her thoughts. "No human willingly surrenders a soul, for that act kills a human. Besides, you sisters kill men in many ways, and not just as song-price. You have broken the lanterns of the lighthouses you occupy, and hapless men wreck their boats on shoals and reefs. You unsoul them, too."
She did not know what he meant. "Men want those songs... "
"You know human life only from Raina's songs." His eyes blazed as he leaned across. "When you swallow your first soul, you'll know how much men dread being killed because of your enchanted songs. You must repent or God will never forgive you."
Morina knew that humans had gods--she had heard of them in snatches of hymns and psalms Mother sometimes included in her songs. But singing sisters had their own gods, and were bound by tasks assigned to them by their gods. "Sisters need souls to enrich their lyrics."
"Let Raina suck her own souls." He turned his face away.
Mother cannot fly any more, thought Morina. She said nothing.
It was only after he stopped his boat at the rocky base of her lighthouse that he turned to face her. He looked stern. "Tell Raina you met a man with a balalaika. Tell her to stop being selfish. You deserve a chance as a human."
Stabs of pain battered Morina as she climbed to join Mother in the watch room. The hostility of the humans had shocked her, and the preacher's accusations bewildered her. Morina had carried songs to men often enough before that, and none of the men had looked scared like the boy today. Their expressions had been admiring, and...greedy.
Besides, if unsouling were murder, why would Mother have asked her to fetch souls?
When Morina was younger, Mother had often narrated the legend as they flew together. Mother's plumage had been resplendent in those days, and scintillated in the sun as she soared alongside Morina who was so small that she barely managed to lift a verse.
"Three gifts were granted to the first sister," Mother crooned one such day, guiding her to an updraft.
"Wings to spread song," Morina chanted, keen to show she remembered. "Souls to sweeten songs with human feelings. Eternity."
"I know what songs are," Morina said. "And souls are the shiny, slippery things humans give as song-price. Tell me about eternity."
Mother paused, as though thinking of a way to explain. "It is living forever."
"Will I become beautiful like you? Will I live forever?"
"You will live forever," Mother said, "unless you repeat my mistake."
"I will tell you later," Mother said.
And ever since then, whenever Morina asked her about the mistake, Mother said, later.
"Very few men know how to pierce our spell," Mother murmured, lying on the stone slabs, thin and dried by starvation. Most of her feathers had been lost, leaving the exposed skin of the wing hard, cracked, and clotted with blood. "I wish you'd seen who played the balalaika."
Ever since that awful day when the preacher first shattered the song, his a repugnant, discordant music would rise off the distant shore every time Mother attempted to hum, and Mother would be struck silent. Morina had not managed to transform or take flight since that day. No songs had nurtured Morina. No souls had been gathered for Mother.
"I told you I was too far from the shore to see anyone." Morina squirmed from the shame of her repeated lies. She had not told Mother of the hostile crowds or the preacher, and instead claimed she had fallen into the sea when the song was pierced, and had swum back home. The preacher's words still haunted and puzzled Morina and she worried that they would agitate Mother even more.
"I thought all who knew were...unless...no, it is impossible." Mother closed her dead eyes. "But what will we do now? No song, no souls."
"We have some souls stored in the lantern house," Morina said softly. "You must be hungry." Morina needed song for sustenance just as Mother needed souls, but Morina, younger, could bear a few weeks of hunger. She hoped she could.
"Leave those souls for emergencies," Mother said. "When I sing next, daughter, fly to where your aunts live. Join their brood. They fly over other, distant seas, safe from this balalaika man."
"Your sisters expelled you before I was born." Morina touched the welts on her neck and winced. "They attacked me the only time I entered their zone by mistake."
"I will never go to them," she added after a pause. "I shall remain here, with you."
"Then mate a man to complete your initiation," Mother whispered. "That will let you sing your own songs and fly without my help. Go afar and gather souls for both of us."
But Morina did not want to mate a man and take his soul. After she had realized that unsouling killed humans, initiation felt repugnant. As Mother continued to ramble about the urgency of initiation, Morina looked down at the rocks surrounding their lighthouse. Breakers were crashing against them and pulling back, leaving behind trails of foam and regurgitated bones. The sight of the dirty sand reminded her of the rage-crazed faces on the shore when the preacher had dragged her mercilessly. Even across the stretch of days, she could hear the venom in the preacher's voice, the bitterness of his accusation.
"Men consider us monsters," Morina said softly. "I will not mate."
A glint of reflected sunlight caught her attention. Morina squinted. A robed man was rowing his boat closer, skillfully avoiding the reefs. A shiny object lay near him. The preacher with his balalaika. He reached the lighthouse and stepped out of the boat. She smiled with sudden hope; he had left his balalaika in his boat.
"A traveler has come here by mistake," Morina told Mother. She would sneak up to his boat and destroy his instrument. "I will go down and meet him."
"I am thirsty," said Mother.
Morina held a beaker of water near Mother's mouth, and Mother sipped a bit, and then muttered something.
"Should I pour it down your throat?" Morina asked.
"I've had enough. You sip, too," Mother whispered, moving her face away. "You must be thirsty."
Impatient to be gone, but not wanting to argue with Mother, Morina sipped the water, but the water had turned into a fiery wine, heady and sweet. Morina's body surged with a feeling she could not name. "You did something to the water."
"Mate the stranger, daughter," Mother says. "Enjoy the initiation soul. Let your first song burst out."
Morina ran lightly with the wind, her flesh afire. She had never known herself to be so beautiful, and she wondered, but only for a beat, whether the preacher would find her irresistible. He must.
She found him sitting on a rock facing seawards.
"Come," she whispered huskily. Wings were forming inside her, straining at her skin, though no song had been sung to awaken them. A lyric welled in her, and she knew it would bubble out of her as her first song, wild and passionate. Her throat vibrated; she needed the touch of flesh to unleash it.
He paled when he saw her. "You should have told Raina about me," he said. "I am taboo." And with that, he vanished.
No, he was still standing there, but so insubstantial that she could see the waves through him.
"What have you done?" she asked.
"To the elements I returned my gross body, and to a secret place, my crystallized soul. I stand here in essence an apparition, to talk to you without interruptions of flesh."
He was not speaking aloud, she realized. Instead, his words were vibrations inside her, somber and resonant. Her body hurt from a song unsung. She was still beautiful, but of what use was any of it? The preacher hated her so much he had surrendered his flesh to avoid her.
"Preacher, you lie," she said bitterly. "Unsouled men die--you told me that yourself. You say you have no soul, but you are alive."
"Those men and women lost their souls to you," he said. "I, on the other hand, discarded my flesh using magic, and shall resume my flesh using magic again. My soul is unspoiled."
The gold of her skin had started fading. She slipped down on the sand, rubbing her back, her limbs. The fire that burned her dissipated, and the salt of the sea breeze made her skin smart. She felt exhausted.
"Listen to me, child." The preacher's voice was a shout inside her. "In the eyes of God your sins are of ignorance. Follow my advice or you will become like Raina."
The mention of Mother snapped Morina into alertness. The balalaika! The preacher, absorbed in his eloquence, was not watching her. She rushed to his boat, smashed his bejeweled balalaika against the floor, and scooped up the mess. Pretty rainbow jewels sparkled amidst the wooden splinters; she slipped the diamonds and sapphires and rubies in her neck pouch and flung the splinters far into the sea. Dark waters gulped them up. She smiled and savored her triumph.
The preacher had finally noticed what she was doing. He rushed at her and through her, a momentary chill. "What have you done!"
"I saved my life, and Mother's."
The paleness that had once been flesh quivered. "I need my balalaika to regain my flesh. But without a body, how can I dive to recover those pieces? I am doomed to remain formless forever."
As if she cared!
For a few moments she watched his apparition hover on the shore, its pale eyes looking at the rise and ebb of waves. His agonized words were murmurs inside her. She shrugged and left him to his laments.
"You bring very few souls nowadays," Mother said. "I hope you are not spurning offers. Our gods forbid such refusal." She had not yet fully recovered from the long stretch of starvation, but she managed a song now and then, and sometimes she smiled.
"The balalaika man may not be pestering us any more, but men from the mainland are wary of us," said Morina. "Few come close enough to listen."
It was not completely true. Morina now chose smaller audiences, shared only snatches of song, and streaked away after accepting the first offering, just enough soul for Mother's survival. By the time other song-struck mortals could offer themselves, Morina was too far away to see them.
Sometimes, flying back, she glimpsed the preacher, a shimmer near the lighthouse. He would beckon her, but she ignored him.
Mother had fallen from her perch and snapped a wing. Bone, white and sharp, jutted out of leathery skin. Morina had tied a splint and applied salve.
"I do not have many songs left," Mother said as Morina cleaned the wound one day. "You must mate to let song descend in your throat and free your wings from your flesh forever. Swallow your initiation soul, and get your eternity."
"If I complete initiation but do not sing after that, would I live forever?"
"Our lore says we must sing." Mother's voice sounded harsh.
Morina held Mother's chin up and poured water into her mouth. "Tell me the lore again," she said.
Mother talked slowly, breaking ever so often to remember. Sometimes she fell asleep mid-sentence and then awoke with a start. Morina listened carefully, piecing together all she heard, but Mother was only repeating what she had told her in the past.
"Tell me about your first mating," said Morina. "Your initiation."
Mother winced, then said, "It happened long ago."
"That man was my father, isn't it so? Your sisters expelled you after you mated him."
Mother sighed. A long silence. Then she said, "That was because I spared him and became mortal."
Oh! Morina waited. So this was the mistake Mother had always refused to talk about.
"He was tall for a man," Mother said. "Thin, with a face calmer than a dead sea. He used magic as his song-shield. He tried to make me stop singing. I would tell him our legends, our beliefs, and describe our life to him. I seduced him."
Morina did not dare move lest the disturbance break Mother's story thread.
"I could not take his soul afterwards," Mother said. "It felt like murder. So I cast a spell and bound him into eternal sleep."
The wraith downstairs was tall and thin. He knew magic. He knew Mother's name. "Did you tell him about balalaikas?"
So the preacher was her father. But Morina could not understand one thing. "You spared him, yet you kept unsouling others."
"Our kind needs souls to live, for that's our nature." Mother turned away. "But I never wanted to mate a man again."
Morina would visit her father every night, after Mother fell asleep. She always found him pacing the sands, frail and barely visible in moonlight.
"What sort of god could want you to kill us?" she asked him one day.
He glared despite his insubstantiality. "You kill us."
"You would starve me and Mother? Mother spared you."
"A few deaths, many lives saved."
Through him, she saw the rocks black against the sea. Through him she saw the moon and the stars. She wished she did not know he was her father.
"The first singing sister was a human," he said one day. "The first soul taken was offered to her by her lover, and she sprouted wings to fly and share her gifts with the entire world. Then she had a brood and the murders started."
"Why don't your mighty gods kill us if we are evil?" she said. "What feeble gods do you worship?"
He looked away, into the sea, where the broken balalaika had been flung.
"Singing exhausts me more now," Mother said one evening, after barely managing a song so short that Morina had been forced to return moments after lifting off. Mother's wing had not healed. Her very life-force seemed to be oozing out of her broken skin.
"I could fetch another soul from below, we have a few left," suggested Morina. She had started feeding Mother the souls stored earlier, though they had become hard and unappetizing. Very few souls were left.
"Souls won't help much." Mother sighed. "I think I am dying. My throat catches often, and I cannot find my songs inside me."
Morina was tired, too. She missed the power of the songs. Her body felt drained. "Did you love him so much?"
"I do not regret sparing him," Mother said slowly. "But you must mate and--"
"We will starve after my songs stop."
Morina did not want to starve, but she was no monster to mate and kill.
She asked her father, "Why did you seduce Mother?"
"Raina was beautiful, intelligent." He paused. "Touching her was touching eternity."
Morina thought of the wasted form upstairs, so close to death. "Mother spared you and lost that gift."
"Oh." He was silent for a while. "Forget her. I can help you become human by turning into yourself."
His offhand dismissal of Mother disgusted Morina. But she was curious, too. "Mother left you in an eternal sleep. How did you return?"
"She underestimated my magic," he said. "I returned to atone for creating a monster."
Morina took a few beats to register his meaning. Then she drew herself up and the moon cast her slender shadow on the sand and rocks. The small, silvery scales over her torso were not visible in the shadow, nor were the scars formed by the wings bursting out and retracting. Her shadow could well have belonged to a mortal woman.
"You call me a monster?" Her anguish cracked her voice.
"What else can I call you?" he said. "You even destroyed my soul."
"I destroyed the instrument you used to torture me and deprive us of food."
The wraith drifted to the edge of the sea and gazed yearningly at the waves with its shadowy eyes. "I crystallized my inner beauty and hid it in that balalaika. Now, because you broke the balalaika, my soul is also lost."
The tide was low and the waters tranquil over the spot where she had thrown the splinters of the wrecked instrument.
A sudden thought froze her.
Morina gods were not the human gods, and none of her actions had betrayed the gods she held sacred. But what was she to think of that shadowy man below? The man who was her father?
The preacher had shown no gratitude for Raina for sparing his life even though she sacrificed her eternity in exchange. Not did he care for his daughter--he had called Morina a monster, and strummed the balalaika to torture her. Yet Morina could not hate him, because he had acted true to his beliefs. True to his gods. He made the balalaika to protect his kind, and Morina could not hate him for it.
All these days, as Morina had watched his pale form tread the sands below the lighthouse, she had not regretted breaking the balalaika and flinging away its splinters--she had acted to protect herself and not to deprive him of his soul. She was not responsible for his plight.
But now she wondered, if she could restore his body to him, should she? What would her gods want her to do? When actions that help one shall harm another, what is the most honorable way to act?
If only Morina had a friend to talk to. If only she could talk of this to Mother. But no, some things have to be decided alone.
A full-moon night. Morina watched the preacher's pathetic form pace for a while, took a deep breath, and called out, "Father, is this what you seek?" She held up the jewels she had saved from the balalaika.
He rushed close, but stopped a hand's span away. His face was etched with greed, hope. But another emotion flitted across it: sorrow.
"They contain my soul." He extended a tendril towards her hands but stopped a hand-span away from the jewels. "Once I return I will make another balalaika. It may take me years, but I will do it. God wishes so."
She placed the rubies, the sapphires, the diamonds on the ground. Light shone off them, all colors of the rainbow. She blinked hard. "Do what you will."
She hoped he would say, give these jewels to Raina so that maybe she'll get back her right to eternal life. Or at least say that he wanted to meet Raina and thank her for sparing him.
Wispy fingers elongated and touched the gems.
Morina closed her eyes to hide her tears. She heard a crackle, and then felt fingers brush her cheek. Fingers of flesh.
"I can turn you to a woman," he said.
She snapped open her eyes and jerked back from the man, the preacher, her father, now firm and solid. "Don't touch me!"
He looked startled. Then a scowl grew on his face, and he stared at her, his disapproval obvious. Finally he shook his head, walked off to his boat, and started rowing.
As Morina trudged up the winding staircase, tears meandered down her cheeks, cleaning away the lingering graze of her father's fingers. She had betrayed Mother for this petty man. No, she had spared this man, like Mother did.
"The next song will probably be my last," Mother spluttered one day. "Have you decided what you'll do after my death?"
Morina had pondered on her future for days. "I shall bring to you the last soul in our cellar to make you stronger," she said. "Use all your power to sing of joy and freedom. Will you do it? I need that song to be your best."
Hope glimmered on Mother's wrinkled face. "Will you fly to your aunts? Or to go to the island to mate?"
"Don't worry about me." A soft kiss on Mother's cheek.
Morina slipped the orb in Mother's mouth, and gave her water to help her gulp it down.
Mother's song burst out with surprising vigor. It was simple and pure, sheer beauty. It resonated inside Morina, but she did not stand up. She resisted the urge to spread her arms. She continued to sit near Mother, eyes closed, forcing her wings to turn inwards. Her arms throbbed with pain; she pressed them tight against her sides. She would not surrender. She drank the song, its molten gold scalding her throat. She continued to sit as the wings melded into flesh, the music absorbed back.
After the song dwindled into nothingness, she touched Mother.
"You are here?" Mother's voice rattled, each syllable an obvious torture. "Why?"
Morina's throat, song-burned, could utter no sound. She was amazed and grateful to be alive. She could still hear. She could see. She could touch. She cradled Mother's head in her lap and smoothed out its frown and watched her life fade out. She held her till she died, till the body cooled and became stiff and blue. Dead. Mother was dead. A dirge rose in Morina and stopped at her lips. Tears flowed till she felt shallow inside, and then she let moonlight fill her.
When the moon was ripe overhead, Morina buried the body at the base of the lighthouse. From the cellars overflowing with loot gathered from shipwrecks, she selected garments, possibly old-fashioned but adequate to cover her scales. She would need to buy dresses similar to what women wore, and she would need to buy other things, like food and lodging, so she chose jewels to trade for money. She bundled them up, secured the bundle to her waist with a cord, and stepped out of the tower that had been home since birth.
Foam splashed on her feet as she watched the moon quiver on the water. She wondered how teeth were used to chew food, how bread tasted, and whether it would keep her alive. She wondered whether Father had started making another balalaika and whether it would still make her keel over in pain. She wondered whether, if he saw her, he would betray her to other humans. Or to his god.
Then dawn lightened the sky and Morina began swimming.