If you're excited for The Little Mermaid reboot, have I got news for you: Bethany C. Morrow's A Song Below Water, a young adult novel about Black sirens, is coming out next June, and you can start reading it right now.
In a world populated with creatures that are only myths in ours, Tavia is a siren — a girl whose powers are supposedly so great that she can lure men to their deaths. She isn't interested in that, however. Tavia just wants to hear her long-lost grandmother, who, siren myths have told her, can communicate with her through a body of water. She should be able to hear her in Portland, where she lives, but she can't. Instead, she's stuck in a place with only a handful of Black folk, and a smaller few who have magic, like her.
Her world flips upside down when coverage of a news story she's been following about a Black woman killed by her boyfriend becomes complicated by the discovery that the victim may have been a siren. Tavia finds herself panicking, because her support for justice in Rhoda's case be used to identify her as a siren. Tavia has the support of her sister-friend, Effie — but she's also struggling with her demons. Can these two friends keep their magic — and each other — safe, while still fighting against injustice?
A Song Below Water is the social-justice-minded YA fantasy about mermaids and misogynoir that you've been waiting to read. Morrow has created a world full of ASL-using mermaids, gargoyles, and justice movements, and focused on a Black-centric narrative within it. Start reading it now:
Chapter One: Tavia
It feels redundant to be at the pool on a rainy Saturday, even though it’s spring, and even though it’s Portland, but maybe I’m just more of a California snob than I want to be. Back home I went to the beach on more than one cloudy day. I’d stand on the cold sand, burrowing my toes beneath the surface as though there’d be some warmth there, and I’d listen. Just like I’m doing now.
I always close my eyes, and today’s no exception. It’s never made a difference but it’s part of the ritual, and I guess it must mean something that I did it even before I knew there was a way for living sirens to listen for their dead. It was one of the first things I learned when I finally found “the network,” so despite my lack of results thus far, I close my eyes now too.
The problem is I don’t know exactly what I’m listening for. The story goes that sirens originated by the water, that once we used our calls to damn seamen, and that when we die, our voices return to the sea. If the mythos is to be believed — and as far as any nonmagic people are concerned, most of it isn’t — I should be able to hear my grandmother here.
Here, Portland; not here, the Southwest Community Center, specifically. I mean, I’m at an indoor pool with all its colorfully elaborate water features that nobody is enjoying because my play-sister’s the only person doing laps. Even if sirens’ voices really do return to the water, they probably don’t go to chlorinated bodies of it.
The problem with mythos is that it varies too much for any one interpretation to be believed. Do sirens’ voices return to the body of water near where they were born, or close to where they died? Do sprites have a physical body and are they just too quick to see, or are their forms entirely ethereal? Do elokos have to be self-obsessed phonies, or have I just been lucky to know that exact type?
Who knows. I guess it depends on what movie or song or TV show shaped which decade. It doesn’t really matter when what the world believes about you isn’t a matter of life and death. And it isn’t. Unless you’re a siren.
Anyway, I have another problem: I wouldn’t know Gramma’s voice if I heard it. We lived in neighboring states my whole life, she in Oregon and me in Cali, but we never met. If what the network taught me about how a siren listens for her ancestors ever worked, I still wouldn’t know when I’d found her. I’ve got no lullabies, no loving nicknames, and zero turns of phrase to confirm her identity. Just my hope that like recognizes like.
The community center receptionist did me a solid and let me accompany my sister, Effie, free of charge, since we’re here for Effie’s conditioning, and I never get in the water. I always hang way back so the girl doesn’t think I’m trying to sneak a swim, so when I find I’ve gotten close to the pool’s edge, I pin my arms behind my back — no one dives with their hands behind them! — and take a break to watch Effie for a while.
Beneath the water, she’s got her feet hooked together, one leg behind the other so tight that not even the water can get between them. This is how she swims when she wants to go fast, when she’s done her breathing exercises, and her underwater twirls and arches and hypnotizing glide. She doesn’t look like a mermaid now. For one, she’s abandoned the dramatic dolphin kick that her audience so loves. Right now, she looks like something sleeker. Something that cuts the water instead of dancing in it.
Every time I see her slip into character, I believe. And I wish I were something else.
To clarify, Effie’s not a real mermaid, she just plays one on TV. By which of course I mean at the Renaissance faires. (Obviously, play-sister means we’re not actually related by blood either, but “real” doesn’t apply to family.) With her tail on and with the way she swims — and if you ignore basically everything known about mermaids — it isn’t hard to believe she’s legit. Every time I see her slip into character, I believe. And I wish I were something else.
A wave of chlorine rushes me and the smell is so intensely antiseptic that for a moment I’m back in the sterile hallway of a hospital I haven’t seen since my parents finally got me the hell out of Santa Cruz.
I must’ve closed my eyes again because when the shock of that memory recedes, Effie’s almost out of the water and her sopping wet twists cascade over her shoulders to hide her face while she reaches for her towel. She keeps it on a plastic chair so close she can be covered before anyone gets a good look at her skin, which never looks as parched as she thinks. The lifeguard I’m not supposed to tease her about takes the opportunity to check on the other end of pool, verifying that it is indeed still uninhabited, and I nod. Good boy.
Effie catches my eye and gives me one of her smirking smiles, like she does when I describe her as golden-brown instead of whatever criticism she’s just given herself. She’s heading to the showers now; she’ll be back in five or so minutes (longer if she gets distracted trying to lotion away her dry patches), and then we can head home. But I don’t trust my mind to keep me company anymore, so while I wait, I pull out my phone to catch up on my favorite vlogger.
I’ve been watching Camilla Fox’s eponymous YouTube channel for the past two years. I’ve studied her wash-and-go technique, I’ve acquired a small kingdom’s worth of natural hair products at her recommendation, and I still have not cracked the secret of her bounce and style preservability. In the tutorial, she cuts to a later date and — through the magic of the satin bonnet and silk scrunchies (and the patience not to bunch her hair haphazardly into both) — her two-day-old wash-and-go always looks better than my day one. Of course if we could crack her secret, she probably wouldn’t have three and a half million subscribers. There’s something she knows that we don’t, or she’s a muse (if they still exist), or anyway she’s just hair divinity walking among us.
She’s my patronus. When I can’t deal with real life, I escape into her virtual space, where everything is perfectly lit, perfectly coifed, and perfectly accompanied by neo-soul music I never hear anywhere but natural hair videos and the beauty supply shop.
But something’s off. Not with the perfection that is Camilla Fox; I haven’t gotten to her channel yet. It’s the fact that, because I’m a subscriber who watches little else these days, Camilla’s face should be the first thing I see when I open the app. Except under “Recommended,” there’s another familiar face staring back at me. Another Black girl — a woman — from southern Oregon. Only this one’s dead.
I recognize Rhoda Taylor even though she hasn’t been in the press much. Her picture showed up on the evening news the weekend after her live-in boyfriend murdered her, but only because social media had been circulating it and demanding to know why no one seemed to be saying her name. Now there’s a BREAKING NEWS banner under her picture — and it isn’t a picture I’ve seen before.
There’s only one reason a dead Black woman would suddenly make the news...
I shouldn’t open the video and I definitely should’ve muted it first, but it feels like there’s a tornado in my guts and I’m not thinking straight. My throat feels hot, like someone’s striking metal against a flint.
Recent murder victim.
I only catch fragments. It doesn’t matter; I already knew. As soon as I saw the thumbnail photo, I knew. There’s only one reason a dead Black woman would suddenly make the news, only one reason her boring HR employee photo would be replaced with one where Rhoda’s eyes are red from the flash and her mouth is open like she’s in the middle of talking. Or moaning. However they’re implying we entrance our hapless victims.
The defense is saying the deceased was a siren.
Which means maybe she wasn’t a victim after all.
The video has captions, so when I realize the community center has great acoustics, I finally mute it. It doesn’t stop the familiar, unsympathetic voices from blaring in my head.
Sirens, they say, and anyone listening knows it’s a dirty word.
Danger, they report, and they’re talking about the danger she posed, never the danger we face.
The world is closing in on me, and in the community center, I feel the wall at my back. There’s a wet echo all around, and it’s sad but I’m relieved when I remember that I’m alone. The news people, the talking heads who for once will all agree with each other, they aren’t talking about me — at least not as far as they know. My chest is jumping with a jackrabbit pulse and it’s beginning to hurt.
But no one knows.
I’m still safe.
I must have slid down the wall because soon I find myself sitting on the floor. If it’s damp, I don’t notice. If I’ve lowered myself into one of the many wayward puddles decorating the pool area, I can’t tell. What matters is that no one can look over my shoulder. No one can see what I’m seeing — even though according to the viewer count, literally thousands of people already have.
I turn off my phone; this is something not even the iconic Camilla Fox, naturalista goddess, can fix.
Because Rhoda Taylor was a siren. Like me.
I think I’m going to be sick.
Chapter Two: Effie
There’s nothing like being in the water.
People ask me if it’s quiet, if that’s why I like it. It makes sense; I’m quiet, I must want the world to be the same way.
Tavia asks me that; Tavia is people.
The thing about being underwater is that it’s not — quiet, I mean. I can’t hear what’s happening above the surface, but when I’m totally submerged, I hear the water. I hear its song, the way it sings to itself and anybody who comes below to hear it. I love the way it never changes, and the way I’m always different when I’m here.
Sometimes I bring my head above the surface when I don’t need a breath, just so I can duck back under and hear the song start again. That’s all I mean to do when I crest between laps, but this time I feel a pair of eyes on me.
I can always tell when I’m being watched. I guess when you can never shake the feeling, you’ve gotta be right sometimes.
There he is. He’s leaning back in his seat, wearing a white community center polo shirt with his red shorts, tanned brown hands interlaced on top of his buzz-cut hair. He lifts one my way and I can’t help but smile — even though I immediately hide behind my heavy twists when I wave back.
Last week he said his name is Wallace, and now I hear it replay inside my head.
We only just introduced ourselves (finally), but he’s been coming to the pool for the past several years and I feel like we’ve built up a rapport.
How’s it going.
The water feels fine.
Okay, a very vague rapport, but I’m not a great conversationalist — which he probably reads as disinterest like everybody else. (Joke’s on them, I’m just super uncomfortable.) Sometimes I don’t say anything at all, just make a nonverbal hello.
With the faire coming up, it’s the gesturing that makes me feel a little guilty. Like outside of me and Tav, signing should belong to my life in the mermaid tank. And to Elric, the boy I’m betrothed to when I play Euphemia the Mer.
Whatever. Wallace told me his name but nothing else. He’s the strong, silent type, I guess. Emphasis on the strong. I used to think he was a lifeguard (his arms are built for heaving people out of an unforgiving sea, trust) but despite being a walking ad for the community center, he’s never on the lifeguard stand.
It’s the one downside to Ren faire season returning. Knowing Mom won’t.
When I climb out of the pool, he’s looking away, smiling with a mom who just got foot-checked by her overly enthusiastic toddler. A moment ago, it was just us — the way I like it. As if Tav knows the sight of a mother and child’ll be a trigger, she chooses that moment to look over, but I play it off.
It’s the one downside to Ren faire season returning. Knowing Mom won’t. Most years it’s a passing acknowledgment. Just the truth, crappy but not crippling. This year feels different.
Tavia’s not in the lobby when I’m done showering, so I double back through the locker room and find her standing in a corner on the far side of the pool. For a moment I think maybe she finally heard something in the water. I don’t know exactly what she’s been doing the last few times she’s come with me to the pool; I’m not a siren. I just know what I pick up from Tav, and she’s not totally sure she knows how this whole searching-for-siren-gramma ritual is supposed to work. All I know right now is that she looks more traumatized than victorious. Like, even before I get to her, I can tell something’s really wrong. She might be trying to become the wall, the way she’s pressed into it.
“They said she was like me,” Tavia signs when I get closer.
When she defaults to ASL, I know there’s a problem. It means her siren call is close to sliding free — or she’s afraid it is, anyway. It means the safest thing for her to do is not to speak. When that happens, I try not to speak either; we sign. I’ve got my swim bag in one hand, and the other one’s still checking that all my twists are safely bound inside my wrap and completely out of sight, so I have to respond out loud.
The inside of her throat must be burning. It must feel tight and tense, like a rubber band stretched too far.
“What?” I ask, and even though it isn’t my voice that has power, the sound of it makes Tavia shiver and she waves me even closer.
“They said she was like me,” she signs again, and when she swallows I can’t help but remember how she said it feels when she’s scared to speak out loud.
The inside of her throat must be burning. It must feel tight and tense, like a rubber band stretched too far. She told me once that it’s like choking on a rock of fire that refuses to melt down, and that must be why she’s teary-eyed.
“Who did?” I ask when my hands are free, but I mouth it too, the way I do at the Renaissance faire when me and the few other cosplay mermaids are in our tanks.
Tav reaches out and pulls me in before spelling Rhoda’s name against my chest. When she’s done, she just stares at me with these pleading eyes. Like I’m the strong one. Like she’s not the one teaching me how to keep it together.
Like I haven’t been waiting all day for the right time to tell her I’m having nightmares again. The swim was supposed to give me the courage, because the water’s the only thing that does.
But now Tavia needs me. So I do what I do best; I sputter. I open my mouth and just make generally unintelligible sounds like I sometimes do in class, hoping someone bails me out before I shrivel up and die.
Tavia knows my tricks.
She mouths my name once, then widens her eyes for emphasis — and that’s when I remember who Rhoda Taylor is. That her boyfriend’s going on trial for her murder, and that no one’s ever mentioned her being a siren before. They’ve barely mentioned her at all.
“Is she?” I ask her. Like an idiot.
C’mon, Effie. That is not the point.
I expect Tav to gesture wildly, sign that she doesn’t know or that I’m a jerk for thinking it matters. Instead she does something worse. She deflates, shrugging one shoulder like she doesn’t have the energy to lift both.
“C’mon,” I say, weaving my fingers through hers, and walking my sister around the puddles and the pool. I don’t do a last sweep to find out if Wallace is still around. Tav and I just walk straight through the lobby, into the light rain.
We don’t even break into a half-hearted jog or cover our hair. Mine’s already in a wrap, but Tavia doesn’t squeal or throw her hands up like they’ll offer any substantial shelter. If the flax seed gel isn’t enough to keep her coils from frizzing, it’ll be okay. Her top knot’ll still slay. Camilla taught her well.
When we’re sitting in my car, we’re holding hands again. Tavia sighs so I know she feels safe to speak.
“Does it still hurt?” I ask her.
“A little,” she says, and almost grimaces. “But it’s probably in my head.”
She’s touching her keloid so I’m not sure she’s even talking about the fire in her throat. The scar is definitely too old and too healed to cause her pain anymore.
“Yeah,” I whisper through an exhale.
She wants to say more than that, but even for a nerd like Tavia, there probably aren’t words enough to do it justice. She could write one of her monster IB essays just on what havoc the revelation might wreak in her relationship with her dad, citing her childhood isolation from her paternal grandmother and the crisis that precipitated the Philipses’ move to PDX as necessary historical context. (I might’ve read one or two of her assignments.)
Sometimes I honestly think she can read my mind and I don’t know if that’s a siren feature or just a Tavia feature.
I’ve only lived under his roof for three years and I know Rodney Philips well enough to be worried about how things’ll play out for Tav when we get home. My gram, Mama Theo, is a force to be reckoned with — or, preferably, not — but Tavia’s dad might be her match. Part of the reason we immediately glommed onto each other must be that we know what it is to feel like there’s something wrong with us. And like our families know it. I didn’t know anyone else understood the sting of love mingled with obvious disapproval till I saw Mr. Philips with Tavia.
And still sometimes I envy them. Because at least there’s blood between them.
At least they know what Tavia is.
At least she knows what her family disapproves of.
“He’s gonna wanna scrub my online presence. Again.” She’s talking about her dad too. Sometimes I honestly think she can read my mind and I don’t know if that’s a siren feature or just a Tavia feature. “He’s gonna tell me to delete the video from my history log and search my social media accounts for any mention of Rhoda Taylor or ‘say her name.’”
“Anything that links the two of us, or shows I ever had an interest in or connection to her. Which’ll accomplish nothing. And look paranoid and suspicious. And I’ll do it.”
“Yep,” I say through another sigh. “And you’ll apologize.”
“And I’ll apologize. Even though I’m not sure how I should’ve known.” She’s crying now. “Because if I was somehow supposed to have divined that a dead woman no one’s ever heard of was a siren despite the fact that the defense only just suggested it, then who does he think we’re fooling?”
She looks at me, tears streaking her pretty face, and I smirk because I can’t help it.
“This sucks, Tav.”
As usual, she makes it seem like my fumbling is enough.
“Yeah.” She nods and turns back to look out the windshield again. “It really does.”
A moment later, she fishes her phone out of her pocket and at first I think she’s gonna watch a tutorial. I slide closer so we can watch it together, the way we always do when things feel overwhelming. Living with Tavia’s taught me there are better ways to deal with stress than picking at my skin or hiding behind my twists. For instance, twists can be manipulated into sweet updos, or faux-bobs, and learning how is a lot more distracting and fun.
But instead of queuing up Camilla Fox’s latest, Tav goes into her history and deletes the breaking news video.
“Drive aimlessly so it takes forever to get home?” I ask as I pull myself upright again and finally start the car.
“Sounds about right.”
“I hope you got gas money,” I say, and as she melts down in the passenger seat, letting go of my hand so I can drive and she can hug herself, Tavia sort of smiles.
I take her everywhere, pretend she’s brand new to Portland and shuttle her around like a tourist. We cross bridges just because, zigzag from one side of town to the other, listen to the radio because my car’s too old for an aux plug.
Eventually we decide we’re playing spot the Fred Meyer, and by the time we climb the hill toward home, we’re laughing like Tav’s identity isn’t being used to justify a woman’s murder, and I’m not dreaming of childhood-destroying sprites again. All we have to do is make it through the front door, up the stairs, and into our bedroom without incident, and we’re golden.
I’m thinking this might just work.
Except before Tavia can reach for the knob, the front door flies open.
Her dad is standing on the other side, frowning. He steps out onto the porch and cranes his head to look up at the roof.
“Dad, what’re you —” Tav starts before following his gaze and going quiet.
I look too.
There’s something on the roof, a large something. Made from stone, it’s a hulking figure that’s crouched and gripping the edge with long talons.
Mr. Philips does not look happy when he gestures us through the door.
Bethany C. Morrow's A Song Below Water is being published by Tor Teen on June 2, 2020.