The Isle of Capri overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea, where there was a cluster of islands. The Amalfi Coast held stunning cathedrals, beautiful gardens, and lovely villas, and beyond the coast was the Sirenuse archipelago. The Italian islands were simpler, more peaceful, than the hustle and bustle of the active tourism on the coast. The area was commonly busy year-round, with boats coming in and out of the Marina Piccola, but all those traveling to and from the harbor knew to stay away from the rocky outcropping known as Vetera.
It was an unspoken rule of sailing through the Tyrrhenian Sea. Some followed the rule simply because it's what other sailors did, and the habit became their own. Commercial boats were provided clear directions for navigation, strictly avoiding that area. Others, though, avoided the area because of the history. Whether they knew it to be true, or if they simply didn't want to take the risk, they set their sails to waters away from Vetera and its inhabitants: sirens.
Though there were numerous tourist attractions, from the villas or Belverde of Tragara on the Isle of Capri to the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral out on the province Salerno's Positano, Jooheon and Changkyun chose to visit this part of Italy specifically for the sirens that everyone else were so adamantly working to avoid. Both boys were aware that their quest was against the norm, but Jooheon had been studying sirens for a majority of his life, including their origins, mythology, and local legends. He had wanted to visit their most historically prominent location of activity for ages, hoping to search local libraries for primary resources, visit museums, and see if he could witness one first-hand, if not at least see their home territory.
Changkyun thought he was insane.
Yet here he was, unpacking his belongings in Italy, because Jooheon had invited him on what truly was the trip of a lifetime, and he wasn't about to let his Ride or Die Best Friend risk his life on a goddamn siren hunt without him. Maybe they'd encounter one, and maybe they wouldn't, but Changkyun preferred being there to experience it alongside his best bud. Besides, he had heard that the limoncello liquor was incredible, so that was an added benefit.
He'd honestly imagined their adventure to Vetera along the lines of:
Jooheon, are those actually sirens over there?
Oh my god, they're really real. Here, Changkyun! Hold my limoncello!
And then they'd die.
It didn't quite have the aura of “hold my beer,” but they were still some pretty phenomenal last words.
Changkyun pulled out his swim trunks and tossed them to Jooheon, who was packing their shared day bag. They’d arrived late the night before and slept in so they’d be energized and ready to sail to the outcropping of rocks. Jooheon had been looking forward to this trip for months now, and he didn’t want to wait any longer than necessary. Changkyun watched as his friend haphazardly stuffed their belongings into a duffle bag, stifling his laughter at Jooheon’s careless intensity.
It would be a lie to say that Changkyun hadn’t been looking forward to this trip,too. He was definitely excited--just not as much as Jooheon (if that was even possible), nor was it for entirely the same reasons. He wasn’t particularly convinced sirens existed, though he thought seeing one would be cool. He was mostly ready to just sit back and relax, sitting in a boat, just chilling under the sun with his best pal. He was there to support Jooheon through the trip of his dreams, while enjoying himself through the trip.
As the packing process was nearly finished, Changkyun grew more eager to get out on the water. Jooheon zipped their duffle bag and threw it over his shoulder definitively, and turned to face Changkyun. He was wearing the most purely thrilled expression Changkyun had ever seen on Jooheon’s face--a true shit-eating grin. There was even more happiness in his expression than the time Jooheon won a lifetime supply of honey buns from their high school’s after-prom, and he was pretty pumped about those honey buns.
“Are you ready to see some mermaids?” Changkyun teased. He knew very well that Jooheon felt strongly about sirens being distinctly different from mermaids. He knew Jooheon was right, too, but it was still funny.
“They’re not mermaids. They’re sirens. But I refuse to let your ignorance ruin this for me, so shut up, follow me, strap your ass into a boat, and row.”
Jooheon said it with a smile and a lighthearted tone, but there was a serious look in Jooheon’s eyes. He didn’t joke around when it came to sirens. Changkyun still had to joke back, though.
“I don’t think boats have straps, but to clarify, would I only strap my ass, or do you want me to strap other parts, too? Might be hard to separate that.”
“Do you want me to strap them in for you?” Jooheon deadpanned. Without waiting for an answer, he turned towards the door, indicating he was done with the conversation. To Changkyun, it felt like he’d won.
“Sorry you’re upset,” he cooed after his friend, “but I bet the mermaids will sing you a song to make you feel better~”
Jooheon spun around to face him, eyes wide.
“We almost forgot our ear protection!” he exclaimed. Jooheon rushed back to their suitcases and began rummaging around. “That could have been fatal.”
They’d purchased special headphones to block out sound, specifically for this trip. They were typically used by hunters, but they blocked out sound incredibly effectively, which was crucial.
The song of sirens was deadly. Those who heard their song were lured closer to the sirens. It was said that the perceptions of those who heard it were altered, making the siren appear to be absolutely beautiful, and their song captivating. Once the siren’s song was heard, the listener came closer, as if under a spell, approaching the siren’s territory. According to myths, sirens kill those who hear their song, pulling the human underwater and drowning them, in turn lengthening the life of the siren. That was, for obvious reasons, not a risk Changkyun and Jooheon were willing to take.
Jooheon zipped the protective gear into the bag and gave an affirmative nod.
“We should be good now,” Jooheon stated as he headed out the door. “You remember the plan, right?”
Changkyun couldn’t help but roll his eyes. They’d been over it dozens of times now.
“Yes, I know the plan,” he huffed, “unless something about it’s changed in the last 24 hours.”
Jooheon shot him an unamused look. “Sorry I asked,” he grumbled. “I just can’t tell whether or not you’re actually listening.”
“Step one:,” Changkyun recited, “Get in boat. Step two: Row, row, row your boat.” Jooheon sighed exasperatedly as Changkyun sang that step, but he continued on, ignoring it. “Step three: Put on headphones when the islands are close. Step four: Disappointment or death.”
“If you follow step three, step four shouldn’t be death.”
“Ah, but you still might be disappointed.”
“Shut it,” Jooheon snapped. “Let me get my hopes up.”
Changkyun wanted to point out how foolish it was to hope for anything without guarantee it was even possible, but Jooheon had heard it all before. Besides, they’d just reached the counter for boat rental on the main floor of their hotel.
Jooheon pulled out his cheat sheet of Italian phrases and asked for a boat in broken Italian, which Changkyun assumed was severely accented. A look at the confused face of the staff member confirmed his assumption, but they got their boat after Jooheon finally surrendered his cheat sheet to the staff when the message wasn’t clear after three tries.
As they ventured into the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Changkyun realized two things: first, they’d forgotten the limoncello liquor and, second, he was more anxious about the possibility of a siren encounter than he’d thought.
They got closer to Vetara, and Changkyun’s eyes darted to every bit of the land he could see, searching for any sign of the mythical creatures of Jooheon’s obsessions. His eyes flicked to a movement beside one of the rocks, then blinked. There was no way it was a siren. He squinted, examining the water, and saw a fish jump from the water.
Ah, that makes much more sense , Changkyun thought to himself. Fish actually exist, dumbass. Don’t let your mind trick you into seeing what isn’t there.
“You ready?” Jooheon asked from the front of the boat. He had grabbed their headphones from the bag when Changkyun was coming back to reality, and he was passing Changkyun his pair.
He grinned up to Jooheon and reached to take them. “Ready,” he confirmed.
Jooheon smiled back at him as he settled his own headphones over his ears before facing the front of the boat again.
Changkyun stared at the pair of ear protection in his hands, thumbing at the loose faux-leather plastic, considering if they were really necessary. He wasn’t going to convince himself of the existence of something he knew couldn’t be real. It was a myth.
He set his headphones on the floor of the boat and scrambled to reach his oars and help Jooheon, who was attempting, pretty unsuccessfully, to paddle their boat across the sea. He gripped the wooden handles and began rowing, matching Jooheon’s pace again.
Changkyun worriedly looked to where his ear protection was sliding on the dark wooden floor of their boat, second-guessing himself again, wondering if he should grab them. But he shook his head at himself and continued rowing. The water between them and the outcropping of rocks steadily decreased and, as it did, Changkyun rowed with more confidence. There were no signs of sirens. There was only fish. Many fish, actually. It was a dense area with more and more fish swimming towards, then past them as they neared Vetara.
The amount of fish only seemed to multiply the closer Jooheon and Changkyun got to the rocks, and they were all swimming in the same direction: away from the land and past their boat. Changkyun had never seen anything like it. Large schools of groupers and sea bass pushed past them. Changkyun leaned over the boat's edge, peering into the water, and recognized bluefin tuna also swimming in what he assumed was a seasonal migration.
The two boys were careful as they rowed, Jooheon equally aware of the mass amounts of marine life. Their boat rounded the corner of the jutting rocks and Changkyun looked into the water again. He startled, immediately sitting upright in the boat, unsure if what he’d seen was a reality. He forcefully rubbed his eyes, shaking his head. There was absolutely no way…
I just saw a face.
Changkyun steadied his breathing and lessened the pressure on his eyes. He knew his anxious mind was playing tricks on him, showing him what he, in a way, wanted to see. Then something happened that was impossible to account as a creation of his imagination.
He heard someone singing.