Throwback Thursday | A DISTORTED Excerpt: “To Sing Which Tune” by Heidi C. Vlach

They would never hurt anyone, the stories said. Sirens ate only fish and spoke only music, and they rescued lost sailors and drowning people, and they taught ducklings to swim. The sirens, the graceful bird-folk, were friends to everyone who respected their waters.

Helen knew all of that to be true—not the more excessively romanticized parts, but she did have a life’s worth of memories to back up the respect-and-friendship theory. Social science only supported what humankind already knew.

But industrialized humans were the most careless friends a siren could have.

Sirens attack yacht, 2 dead, said a page five headline this morning. Suspected cause was dementia; the autopsy showed that those sirens hadn’t hesitated.

Helen’s insides chilled. In the balmy morning light, she read the article over again.

It wasn’t as bad as a lot of news stories nowadays. Not as cruel as sirens singing out to passing boats and then guiding them toward submerged rocks, seemingly deliberate. Nowhere near as shocking as the Symphonia Theatre disaster. Helen had often thought—before, as a child—that no human could be as beautiful as the Symphonia performers. Now, thirty years later, she still saw the news footage behind her eyes sometimes: tuxedos streaked with blood; bodies drifting face-down; the rage and incomprehension on the sirens’ faces as police searchlights lit their eyes reflective green. That day stood out senseless in history. It was the first stark evidence of violent disorder in sirens, that growing rift between Homo sapiens and Sirenum fascinare.


Thinking that way made the truth weigh heavier: Helen might have picked up soda bottles on the beach last week, and worked on biochemical equations last night until her head screamed for mercy. She had stroked her own ego for attending her university’s Sound The Sirens fundraiser gala, one where she wore an actual dress and some mascara. But she wasn’t doing enough.

She couldn’t think of Odyssia’s face without a grey burden of guilt. The face that had beamed all throughout her childhood, crinkled with merriment around her eyes and poured joyous, warbling songs from her lips. Taught Helen songs she hummed offhandedly, even now. But these past few months, Odyssia barely smiled. She stared longer at Helen; like two stars with a void between them.

Sirens attack yacht, 2 dead.

Putting down the newspaper, Helen rose from the kitchen table to go get dressed and do something recklessly expensive. This was a bigger issue than one homicide case. Bigger than the one siren Helen owed a debt of love to. Bigger than her personal credit rating could make a dent in, but she had to try.


The aquarium supplies came to nearly six thousand dollars. Helen signed the invoice, her signature a clumsy tangle made by a possessed hand.

But she felt better driving home. Better still while cleaning and setting up the tank in her barely-large enough garage, and blending salt into de-ionized water. She ran the water quality tests three times to be sure. Studies in the past five years had blamed all manner of contaminants—chlorine, fluoride, laundry detergent, beef growth hormones—but Helen was willing to bet her marine ornithology degree that the problem was petrochemical residue. Plastics and oils decaying into their toxic base components, thanks to humanity’s many errors of judgement.

This garage aquarium was glass and stainless steel, with not one square inch of inexpensive plastic to be found. Helen stood back to regard her work—metaphorically since there was barely space to walk around the tank walls. Above it, the one light bulb hummed. Its fluorescent light dazzled on the water’s surface.


Back then, the stage lights dazzled all around the Symphonia performers, dancing wild for the statuesque sirens. Their feathers shone salt-wet, and their dark eyes demure.

They sang like angels, accounts always said. Finest show on Earth. In the backstage TV special that fateful day, they had been so patient with the children pulling at their bladderwrack dresses, and the paparazzi detonating camera flashes.  Until one Symphonia siren cried out, shrilling like a wounded gull.

Their call-to-defense cry, Helen knew instantly in her living room, suddenly sick with fear.

The other sirens went rigid. They parted cupid’s-bow lips showing their carnivore teeth—and none of those human people thought to run until it was too late.

Helen wasn’t surprised the inquiry found a cocktail of chemical residue in that theatre lagoon.




Official Distorted Cover

Heidi C. Vlach is a chef training graduate and overqualified waitress from Ontario, Canada. She is also a video game enthusiast, blogger and paper maché artist. Heidi independently publishes the Stories of Aligare, a series of fantasy novels and novelettes set in a human-free world.

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