Erminia picked her way carefully between the rocks and gnarled tree roots of the path as she made her way down a steep slope to the sea. Behind her, the hills rose into pleated crests, lined with cedar, oak, and pine. In the dawn light, the gorse bloomed bright yellow amid the green leaves. The sky was streaked pink, striped with scudding clouds that were chased by an ocean breeze. The last fingers of the night's mist clung to the trees.
She smiled, breathing in the fresh taste of the sea. She was tall, big-boned at the wrists and heavyset across the shoulders. Her face was long and square, her black hair a matted tangle of curls and snagged twigs. Beneath dark eyebrows her eyes were surprisingly light in color, shifting from grey to sapphire. Erminia moved confidently down the switchback trail, unafraid of the steep slope or the hazards it presented. Long muscles in her thighs bunched as each calloused heel dug into the path for balance until she reached a rocky coastline where boulders worn into smooth slabs tumbled into the water. Erminia stared hungrily at the waves churning and breaking over the rocks, casting plumes of white foam into the air.
She inhaled through her parted lips and held her breath. In that mouthful of sea-damp air, she tasted every shore that the sea had touched. And from the taste of it, she exhaled visions of what had dipped into the water: the bitter olive pits tossed into the sea farther up the coast; the peppery trail of spices carried on a ship into Genoa; the fear-sweat of horses confined in the hold of another ship. With each breath Erminia took and released, something else materialized in the air above her head: a canvas sail, torn and mended; a sailor's wool sweater rank with lanolin from the sheep; old wine bottles; the cast-off beak of an octopus; a basil-seasoned mussel shell.
Her dark brow wrinkled as she tasted linseed oil and saw a brown leather mask with a red carbuncle over one eye.* She touched her own face, following the line of her brow and nose to mirror the roughly shaped mask. It was different from the masks she had once known, being smaller and somehow more energetic. Curious, she reached out a finger. The mask dissolved at her touch into a puff of mist, the hollow eyes holding her gaze for a moment longer.
Erminia laughed soundlessly and swept the sky clean of the cluttered images. No more calling on the sea for stories. She was in a hurry today. The goats were impatient to reach their fields and graze. Erminia quickly undressed, pulling the coarse wool over her head and slipping her dirty shift down to her feet. She bunched the clothes together between the cleft of two rocks where they were hidden from view.
Naked, she scrambled over the rocks, taking care to avoid stepping on the crusted patches of tiny, sharp, black mussels. The sea spray jetted between two boulders, sending a lace of white foam over her thighs. The cold thrilled her. Shivering, Erminia reached out her hands to catch the next wave. When it hit, crashing over the rocks, she grabbed the falling water in her arms and rubbed the white spume over her shoulders.
Though she was chilled to the bone, the brisk seawater woke something warm in her. She tossed her hair out of her face and peered over the edge to where the rocks offered a small opening for a diver not afraid of the lashing waves. Holding down her hair, Erminia jumped feet first into the narrow corridor between the rocks.
The shock of cold water stung, and then blazed over the surface of her skin, ripping the air from her lungs. Beneath the waves, she opened her mouth in a soundless scream of delight and bubbles cascaded from her lips. The current twirled her in a whirlpool and in its funnel, she surged upward to the surface.
She burst through the boiling crest of a wave and swallowed the misted air. Like knives slashing the water, she forced her arms to stroke against the waves, driving body out into the open sea, and away from the intense pull of the tide.
Shoals of anchovies joined Erminia, their silver bodies lighting a shimmering path beneath her. They nipped at her black hair that fanned out over the surface of the water. She turned suddenly on her back and floated, staring up at the pale dawn sky. Her breasts bobbed like two small islands. She shivered with pleasure as the anchovies slithered over her belly.
She stretched herself out across the surface of the water and waited. It happened slowly at first, a slight tug and then a hard tear at the skin of her groin as an outer shell of skin dissolved along a hidden seam, splitting apart down the center like the worn carapace of a crayfish. Her chest lifted in the water and her arms dangled beneath her. The dark skin parted from her breasts and fell away into the sea. Erminia put her hands to either side of her face and gently pushed away spent skin to drift on the current.
Her skin gleamed, pearled like the interior of an abalone. Her once calloused heels were a shell pink, her toes translucent. Beneath the weather-beaten brown mask was a woman's face, still long and square in shape, but an alabaster white. She raised her hands out of the water, the fingers luminous as the phosphorescent waves. She stroked her hair free of twigs and dirt, until it glistened, slick and black as kelp.
Erminia gazed up at the clouds, growing ruddy with the rising sun, and sighed. The end of her exile was nearing. She had endured it for nearly ten years. Ten years of silence. Ten years of land legged ugliness. At the beginning, it hadn't seemed such a terrible challenge. The Sirens had suffered far worse humiliations. To think that they had lost their songs and their island in a contest of musical skill to that wretched Orpheus. And for what? So that cafone Jason and his Argonauts could go and plunder a woman of her birthright and her power. Che stronzino, Erminia thought angrily, smacking the water with the flat of her palm. The anchovies scattered in terror. The Sirens should have won against Orpheus. They should have sent the Argonauts crashing into the shores.
She turned over on her stomach, and stroked her arms lazily through the sea. Well, it was true that Orpheus had finally got his comeuppance when the maenads ripped him apart for being such a joyless prick. Now all that was left of him was a head that wouldn't shut up. That galled her the most. She, who could sing the harmony of the spheres, forced to be mute before a head that chattered nonsense! But she had swallowed her pride and gone to see him on behalf of herself and her sisters, who in their misery had vanished off the coast of Naples. She had tried to reason with the head of Orpheus, plead for the return of their singing voices and their island. They had been banished long enough. But he was as much of an arrogant piece of shit as ever.
Erminia submerged her head in the cold water. She had almost convinced him it was time to relent, but then he told her that he might be willing to return their voices because their songs were worthless. Sirens were now remembered as no more than flute-playing whores who had killed and robbed strangers on the road. It had made her furious to think that this donkey's ass had probably spread the disgusting rumor himself. She couldn't stop herself from returning the insult, from telling him that he was remembered as the man who raised his wife from one death only to murder her himself the second time. And then instead of grieving his loss, he had taken up with boys!
She had been stupid to say it, even if she did think it fair. Foaming at the mouth, Orpheus had cast down a challenge. Let the siren try to turn her back on what she loved best and walk blindly out of hell. Let her test her own willpower.
"Ten years of silence on land," Orpheus said. "I will give you back your voice but you may not use it. You may not speak, above all you may not sing. Not one note but that I shall know of it. If you can last the term of exile, then will I restore to you and to your sisters Anthemoessa and your voices." And recklessly, she had pounced on the challenge, convinced that after centuries of silence on the sea, ten years would be a blink of an eye.
Erminia was ageless, known among her sisters as Leucosia, the white-skinned. But on taking up Orpheus’s challenge, she changed her form into that of a young girl and allowed the sea to cast her on the rocks below the church in the village of Camogli. A family had taken her in and, believing that she was mute and ignorant, set her to work as a servant.
On land she grew as any human girl must, though she was taller and more raw-boned than the other village women. She hid her dazzling white skin from them by casting an enchantment over herself that created a mask of weathered brown skin. She could not change the brilliance of her sapphire eyes, so she darkened her brows and covered her head with black matted hair that hid the better part of her face.
The first years on land were dry and hard. She ate poorly, slept in the straw near the animals, and thirsted for the freedom of the ocean. But her foster family had kept her from the sea, fearing she would drown. Not until she was old enough to wander across the hills herding the goats did Erminia find a way to return to the sea for a respite. Just before dawn when the village still slept, she would lead the goats out, stopping briefly along the rocky coast. Slipping into the cold salty water, she would shed the dry, weathered skin and drift again in the sea.
For a few years, the morning visits to the sea had been enough to soothe her. As an muddied goat girl, she had nothing to fear. No one had looked twice at her as she scampered through the hills. But lately, that had changed. Though still ugly, she had grown into womanhood and had drawn the unwanted attentions of her foster brothers. She could disguise her face, but it was harder to hide the siren’s allure. It rose from her body like an undefined scent, filled the air with a thick attar that attracted them even as the sight of her face repulsed them. Their confusion made them hostile.
"Thick, ain't she?" Pietro said, rapping his knuckles on her forehead. "Nothing there."
"Leave her alone," Mamma Donatello hissed. "The girl's addled, but she works hard."
"Imbecile," Pietro said, pinching her cheek hard.
Erminia said nothing because she didn't feel the pain. Pietro's fingers had folded around the browned skin of her mask. Only her eyes, half-hidden beneath her brow, turned a livid blue.
"How can you trust the goats to her, Mamma? What if she loses them?" he complained.
"The goats trust her. And she hasn't lost any of them, Pietro. What picks at your liver?"
"Nothing. Yes, something. It's her silence I don't like,” he said. “She's no better than a dumb beast."
"And she stinks of fish guts," complained Nicolo, sniffing her hair. "How can I bring a bride into the house with this mackerel of a woman?"
Boh," answered his father, Teodoro. "Leave her be. To marry one needs a dowry and this one has none."
"Besides, she'll make a better servant if she stays unwed," Mamma answered. "No man would want her as she is."
But Erminia knew differently. She looked at Nicolo, his eyes refusing to meet hers, and remembered the way he had cornered her in the shed and rubbed himself against her. She didn't cry out when he ground his hips against her with a furious urgency. She watched him with distant amazement as he clutched at her breasts and then tried to kiss her. The probing of his tongue failed to persuade her to part her teeth. He sucked the lobes of her ears but she refused to hear him.
Though he tried, he could find no entrance in her. When he lifted her skirts, she pulled them down, slapping away his hand. She was taller than he, solid as a block of stone, and no matter how hard he tried, he could not hoist himself into the closed valley of her thighs. In desperation, red-faced and panting, he grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to throw her down. But she wouldn't budge and remained where she stood, feet rooted to the ground.
In the end, he contented himself with rubbing his crotch against the wooden length of her leg while she stared down at him from cold blue eyes. He clawed at her shoulders when he climaxed, barks issuing from his mouth. When he finally released her, sweat under his arms, the front of his hose stained, he wagged a finger at her.
"Next time," he panted. "Next time, you'll take it up the ass, goddamn it!"
Erminia sighed to the sea and it carried her into a shallow groove between two rocks. Her exile was almost done. Stay firm only a little longer. And then she could shed her skin a final time and return forever to the sea to find her lost sisters. They would sing again among the rocks. Fuck the head of Orpheus! What did he know of the songs that lingered in the hearts of men?
Erminia dragged herself out of the water and stood to let the morning's chilly wind dry her skin. A substance on the surface of her flesh hardened at the touch of the wind. Her features grew coarse again. Her hair lost its silken shine and became matted and filthy. She shrugged into her clothing and slowly took the path up the steep slope to the village.
As the mask hardened around her features, Erminia turned once more to face the sea. She tasted again the linseed tang of a leather mask, and it reappeared before her, the eyes round, the half mouth a full-lipped grin. She grinned back at it and screwed her features to match its expression. It was too hard to hold such a face for long, though. Reluctantly, she waved her hand and let the image dissolve. Far out on the sea, she could just make out the caste off skin, its arms flung wide, the outline fragile as foam.
High up on the hill, the goats bleated for her. They had waited long enough, it was their turn now. The sun broke over the horizon, shafts of light piercing the scudding clouds. In the next valley, the monastery bell tolled its sad voice of resignation. Erminia let the sound vibrate through her, strengthening her resolve to survive this silent exile. She turned away, her soft blue eyes hardening into dulled stone. She trudged up the slope again, the yellowed calluses of her heels digging into the dirt.
*In the previous chapter the mask Erminia discovers has been dropped into the sea -- a bad omen for the Commedia -- but some new and interesting to Ermina, more familiar with the large heavy masks of Greek drama.
Photo Credit: blogged and reblogged on Tumbler -- searching for the original version probably on a Flickr account.