A soon-to-be siren finds herself responsible for the lives of her sisters—and the fisherman they curse—in this haunting debut novel.
Now that I know the truth, I sometimes picture my sisters in headlights, the way they would have looked on that cold February night, armed with shovels and pickaxes, and digging in the graveyard.
Lolly Salt has beautiful sisters. When they’re not in school or running their small town’s diner, they’re secretly luring ships to their doom from the cliffs of Starbridge Cove, Maine. With beautiful voices that twelve-year-old Lolly has yet to grow into (not that she wants to anyway) the Salt sisters do the work mandated by the Sea Witch, a glamorously frightening figure determined to keep the girls under her control. With their mother dead after a terrible car crash, and their father drowning in his grief, the sisters carry on with their lives and duties…until a local sea captain gets suspicious about the shipwrecks.
On the day before her birthday, Lolly watches in helpless horror as her sisters are lured themselves by curse-reversing fishermen—and suddenly it’s up to her and her best friend Jason to rescue the sirens of Starbridge Cove.
Siren Sisters Chapter 1 The siren sings so sweetly that she lulls the mariners to sleep.
—Leonardo da Vinci
Now that I know the truth, I sometimes picture my sisters in headlights, the way they would have looked on that cold February night, armed with shovels and pickaxes, and digging in the graveyard. They have Dad’s truck running, parked on the dirt road, and ropes they stole from a fishing boat. They’re wearing snow boots and Dad’s old work gloves, and they’re struggling not to slip on the ice.
Of course, that’s how I see it in my imagination. Like most of our family stories, I don’t know all the facts and details. It’s the curse of the youngest sibling. I mean, maybe there weren’t any shovels. Maybe there was a backhoe or something. And maybe they didn’t leave the truck running and the headlights on. Maybe they had lanterns. But this is what I do know: They must have been terrified out there in the darkness, afraid of what they would find and afraid it wouldn’t work, that they’d put their lives in the hands of a vengeful sea witch for nothing. And also this: The three of them were the prettiest grave robbers in history. That I know for sure.
One week earlier
This is how it happens: We reach the cliffs at dawn, in the middle of an electrical storm. Lightning splits the sky, and a strange, wild wind howls through the trees and tangles our hair. We walk right up to the edge, where we can see the waves breaking on the rocks below, and my sisters hold hands and begin to sing. Their voices are pure and perfect, and their song is so sweet you can practically taste it; it’s the musical equivalent of strawberry lemonade on a hot summer day.
I can’t sing like they can. Not yet, anyway. I try to join them, but every time I open my mouth, instead of that beautiful strawberry sound, it’s like the croaking of a frog. The musical equivalent of a lump of mashed potatoes. And so I just stand there in the rain and mouth the words.
Out on the water, a cargo ship, a massive freighter stacked about twenty feet high, heads for shore. My sisters sing louder, and I cover my eyes with my hands and peek through my fingers. I want to be brave like they are. I want to act like I don’t care. But in case you don’t already know, a shipwreck is a terrible thing to see. There’s a tremendous crash, the sound of metal scraping against rock, and then an awful groaning as the entire ship tilts and breaks apart. Cables snap, and cargo containers slide from the deck and fall into the ocean like cannonballs. The crew can’t do anything but abandon their vessel and await rescue.
The whole process is exhausting, and we fall asleep right there in the grass, Lara, Lula, Lily, and me, lying in a tangled heap of bodies and wet clothes. In the morning, the sun comes out, and we trudge sleepily back home, squinting, sweat trickling down our backs. Sometimes a truck pulls over and the driver offers us a ride. They’re usually fishermen on their way to market, hauling huge barrels filled with silvery-black sea bass and mussels and lobsters. They think we’re just normal girls, and we play along. Just out for a walk, we explain. Beautiful morning. Thank you so much; we’d love a ride.
Our family owns the Starbridge Diner, home of the best blueberry pie and bottomless cup of coffee in northern New England, and my sisters are known as the best waitresses in Starbridge Cove. They can tell what you want to order just by looking at you. They know if you want a cheeseburger, and they know how you want it cooked, and don’t even bother pretending to be interested in the fruit salad; they already know that what you really want is a vanilla milk shake and a slice of pie. And they’ll bring it to you, whether you ask for it or not.
We’re all there on Sunday afternoon when the local news comes on the radio: “Another disastrous shipwreck this morning, just north of Bergstrom Marina . . .”
I stop rolling silverware in napkins and glance at my sisters, but they don’t make eye contact. They play it cool.
“Rain’s stopping,” Lula says. “I’m going to get the door.” She turns the dial on the radio, and it switches to the local folk rock station, playing one of our dad’s new songs. Then she crosses the room, red rubber sandals smacking against her feet, and flips the sign from CLOSED to OPEN.
“Lula!” Lara pokes her head out from the kitchen. “Are you wearing flip-flops?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna change in a second.”
“Now please! And, Lily, take off those sunglasses. Let’s try to be a little professional here.”
The screen door slams and Dad comes into the kitchen. “Hey, Lolly.”
I wave to him through the window between the kitchen and the counter. “How was practice?”
“Fine.” He stomps his boots on the mat, hangs his faded green army jacket on the coatrack, and sets his guitar case, covered in antiwar stickers and peace signs, down in the corner.
I jerk my thumb toward the radio. “I like the new song. Are you playing it for the festival?”
“Yup.” He slips an apron over his head and goes to turn on the stove. “The exciting live debut of ‘On the Ghost Road.’ Busy afternoon?”
I shake my head and turn back to my napkin rolls. “No, it was super quiet because of the storm. We decided to close for a little while.”
“Well, that’s probably for the best. Tourists don’t come out during weather like that. You girls get stuck in it?”
“No. We were fine.”
“Good.” Dad bends down and kicks a mousetrap back under the sink. “Glad to hear it.”
I hop down off my stool and busy myself setting tables.
Next week, when I turn thirteen, I’ll be allowed to work as a waitress like the others. For now, I still have to do the menial tasks, carrying and cleaning, and showing people to their seats.
At five o’clock I have a break for dinner, and Jason will come to visit. I cut slices of our favorite pies, apple crumb for him and wild blueberry for me, and then I grab my jacket and a mug of black coffee and wait by the door.
Lula leans over the counter, licking key lime pie filling off the edge of a spatula. “What are you doing, Lolly? Waiting for your boyfriend?” She and Lily start laughing.
“Lula, get that out of your mouth!” Lara comes around the counter and nudges me with her hip. “What’s wrong, little lady?” Lara has this amazing gift for taking the lamest expression and making it sound cool. She makes you wish you’d thought of saying it first. Only then it wouldn’t have sounded cool; it would have just been lame.
“Oh, quiet!” Lara shushes her. “She’s always turning bright red. She can’t help that.” She takes a pencil from her apron pocket and starts twisting my ponytail up into a knot. Lara is a master of effortless hairstyles that look messy in the perfect way. “You go and have a nice time, Lolly.” She sticks the pencil through my hair just as the door opens and Jason comes in, water dripping from his bright blue raincoat. He’s kind of small for his age and really skinny, and he can’t help staring at my sisters. Nobody can.
“Come on!” I grab his arm and pull him back toward the door.
Lara lifts two fingers in the air. “Peace out, Girl Scout!”
The picnic tables are located beneath a circle of pine trees, and the benches are still wet from the morning’s storm, but we take our napkins and dry a space for ourselves. Jason has to wipe the bench exactly ten times before he’ll sit down, even though we both know it’s perfectly clean. While he’s doing that, I open the pastry boxes and take a sip of my coffee.
“How can you drink that stuff, Lolly?”
“Coffee? I don’t know . . . it helps me stay awake.”
“Yeah, but why are you always so tired in the first place?”
“You want to try some?”
He makes a face. “No way. I don’t even like the smell.”
I shrug and take another sip. “Coach Bouchard and Nurse Claire are definitely dating. I’m, like, ninety percent sure.”
“So it’s totally weird. I mean, they’re both school employees.”
Jason picks up his fork. “How does this affect you in any way?”
“I saw them in the parking lot yesterday. Holding hands!”
He takes a bite of apple crumb and chews thoughtfully. “Still doesn’t answer my question.”
“I just don’t like seeing people where they’re not supposed to be. I mean, they’re in charge of us at school. I don’t want to think about them having, like, lives. You know?”
“Oh!” I set the mug down, splashing coffee everywhere. “Okay, I almost forgot. I have something really exciting to tell you!”
Jason glances at me and then unfolds his napkin and starts wiping up the spill. “More exciting than this?”
At school, we’re learning about inverse proportions, and sometimes I think you could map my friendship with Jason on one of those triangular diagrams. The more excited I am about something, the exponentially more skeptical he becomes. “That new giant squid documentary is playing at the aquarium, the one you’re always telling me about. I saw it in the paper.”
“Mysteries of the Deep? I already knew about that.”
“Oh. Well, this is a special showing. Four p.m., and kids go for free. Plus, they give you a free soda. We can take the bus right after school.”
“Are we still kids?”
“It says anyone under fifteen.”
“Well, I’d like to go, but I actually, um, I have something to do.”
“Something to do? You’ve been talking about this documentary for months. What do you have to do?”
Jason takes a deep breath and pushes away his pie. He has copper-colored hair and freckles, and, just like me, he turns bright red when he’s nervous. Which is clearly now.
“Jason, what is it?”
He takes a crumpled flyer from his pocket and smooths it down on the table.
ANNUAL HALLOWEEN REGATTA!
SPONSORED BY BISHOP’S FISH
AGE 10 AND UP
Suddenly I’m not in the mood for pie either. “Why do you have that?”
He looks at me. “Because I want to sign up. And tryouts are tomorrow.”
“But you get seasick. I mean, you hate sailing.”
“I hate my stepbrothers,” he corrects. “And I hate their boat. That doesn’t mean I hate sailing.”
Part of the reason Jason and I are such good friends is because we both know what it’s like to be the youngest in the family and the worst at everything. In Jason’s case, it’s sailing. His stepdad is a developer who owns practically every commercial property in town. He owns the entire marina, plus a condo complex, four motels, and two boats. Jason has three stepbrothers, all tall and strong like their dad, and they all sail competitively. For a while, they dragged Jason along on the boat too, but while everyone else was out frolicking on the bow in bathing suits, sipping champagne and eating fancy cheese, Jason would spend the afternoon with his hood pulled up and his head in his arms. Finally, during their last outing, he threw up all over the deck, and now he’s allowed to just stay home.
“Anyway,” he continues, “sailing is big at Starbridge Prep. I need to start practicing.”
“But that’s still a year away.”
“So I think this is a terrible idea.”
“Because . . . well, what if something bad happens?”
“Like, what if you get hurt? What if you get seasick again? What if you fall in the water and get eaten by a shark? Or a giant squid!”
“Are you kidding?”
“And what about Mysteries of the Deep? It’s our last chance to see it. I mean, you said yourself it’s a groundbreaking film, something every aspiring marine biologist should see on the big screen.”
Jason stands and shoves the flyer back in his pocket. “You’re being so weird right now, Lolly.”
“What do you mean? Where are you going?”
He shakes his head. “I’m not hungry anymore.”
He climbs over the bench and squelches away through the muddy grass, leaving me alone with our half-eaten pie. Of course, it’s not really about the documentary. I mean, a person doesn’t get to be best friends with Jason O’Malley for ten years without watching about eight million marine biology documentaries, and let’s face it, once you’ve seen one giant squid, you’ve pretty much seen them all. There’s something more serious at stake here. If Jason joins that sailing competition, or any sailing competition, his life could be in danger. And my sisters and I are the reason.
That night I can’t sleep. I toss and turn and stare out my open window, waiting for signs of a storm. Finally, I throw back my blankets, flick on a flashlight, and pull out a stack of contraband library books from underneath my bed. Research. For the last month I’ve been secretly searching the school library for information about sirens, hoping I might discover an explanation for what’s happening to me and, more important, how to stop it. Mrs. Anderson, the school librarian, rules the stacks with an iron hand, but I’ve figured out how to slide my bag down the counter behind the book scanner when she’s not looking so it won’t set off the alarm. I’m very thorough and organized with my research, more than I ever am with my real schoolwork. I read all the books, I read all the footnotes, and then I read all the books referenced in the footnotes. I highlight important information, and I write down important quotations when I want to remember the author’s own words. I’ve found a lot of fascinating facts about sirens from all over the world this way. Mami Wata of Africa with her braided black hair and snakes coiled over her shoulders and waist. The murderous rusalki of Russia with their green eyes and translucent skin. But most of these scholars don’t believe in the existence of sirens, let alone begin to understand them on any practical level. Basically, there’s not much useful information for a real-life siren-in-training like me, especially not when it comes to being a siren in middle school in a tiny town in Maine that’s not really known for anything except folk music and seafood. That’s why I started keeping my own journal, a field guide of sorts.
SOME THINGS ABOUT SEVENTH GRADE THAT MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO BE A SIREN:
School starts at 8 a.m., and you have to show up on time and stay awake for algebra, even if you were up causing shipwrecks until 4 a.m. the night before.
You have to change into sneakers for gym class, and there is a good chance that everyone in the locker room will see the scales on your feet.
The boy you like may decide to join the sailing team, and then you’ll be in the awkward position of having to lure him to his doom.
After a while, I close my books and tiptoe down the hall to Lara’s room. I crawl in next to her amid the heaps of clothing and magazines she leaves scattered everywhere.
“Lara,” I whisper. She smells like our mom used to—like clean laundry and sea spray. She used to have hair like our mom’s too, thick and straight and midnight black, but of course that changed when she became a siren and the Sea Witch turned her hair the color of butter.
“Mmmm?” She’s still half-asleep.
“I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m scared.”
She rolls over and drapes one arm over me. “You have to, Lolly. You’re almost thirteen.”
“I’ll explain it when you’re older.”
I’m finally starting to fall asleep, when I hear the sound of the wind chimes ringing and the rusty old weather vane creaking on the roof. I pull the blankets up over my head, but then the whole room lights up, and a sound like a drum rattles the windows and shakes the walls. Lara pushes the covers back. “Come on, Lolly,” she says. “She’s calling.”
In the morning, Lula and Lily wake us both by jumping on the bed. Lara takes her pillow and swats at them, but they just jump higher.
“We made coffee!”
Lula lands on top of me, giggling, and her necklace brushes against my face. We all have the same one, a heart-shaped locket that Lara had made for us after our mom died, and we wear them every day. “Wake up, little one!” Her sun-streaked hair is in a high side ponytail, and she’s wearing a T-shirt that says: CALL ME.
Everyone stops jumping, and we huddle together with the blankets pulled around our shoulders. Lula distributes the steaming mugs of coffee they’ve left on the nightstand, and Lara starts braiding Lily’s hair.
It’s September, and the mornings are already getting cold. We live in an old farmhouse at the edge of town, about half a mile from the diner, and you can always feel a draft through the glass windowpanes and the gaps in the thin shingle walls.
“Ow!” Lula complains. “Someone’s feet are freezing!”
“Probably Lolly’s.” Lara smiles at me. “She sleeps with me most nights, and it’s like being in bed with a little brick of ice.”
“I dreamed about Mom again,” Lula says. “She was playing her guitar in the middle of the river.”
“You did?” I sit up a little higher on the pillows. “What else? How did she look? Did she say anything about me?”
“We have to go, guys.” Lily swings her long, skinny legs over the side of the bed. “Come on. We’re gonna be late again.”
I bury my face in the steam from the coffee and breathe it in. The mugs are as big as bowls and filled right to the brim. “I’m still so tired.”
“We slept about four hours,” Lara consoles me. “You’ll get used to being up all night. It’s just that you’re still growing.”
I sigh into my coffee. “I hate it.”
“Why?” Lula asks. “It’s amazing.”
“Yeah,” Lily echoes. “Do you have some kind of problem with being powerful and immortal and irresistible?”
“I have a problem with never getting any sleep. Besides, I think I was stronger and more powerful when I was doing gymnastics. Remember when I dislocated my elbow falling off the balance beam and didn’t even cry?”
“Yes,” Lily says. “How could we forget? You tell that story, like, every day.”
I slide my hand over the now-healed elbow, which still hurts sometimes when it’s cold out or about to rain. “I really miss it.”
“Well, I don’t see how. Every time I turn around you’re upside down or doing cartwheels.”
“I found her hanging in the coat closet last week,” Lula reports. “She’s like a bat.”
“That’s not the same. I don’t understand why. I mean, don’t you sometimes just want to be normal?”
They all exchange glances and then Lily sighs dramatically. “Whatever. You’re just jealous because you can’t do it yet. You can’t sing like we can.”
“Oh, come on,” Lara says. “You don’t have to be so mean about it. She’s still just a child.”
“I’m not a child!” As I say the words, I’m aware of how childish I sound. Well, too late. I climb out of bed and stomp into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I turn on the tap, but I can still hear them talking about me over the rush of water. They want me to grow up. They’re tired of me being “so sensitive and immature,” always whining about being tired or cold or having to quit gymnastics.
The first time I said I felt sad about a ship we’d wrecked, Lily just rolled her eyes. “You don’t get it, Lolly.”
“So explain it to me.”
“Don’t be a loser.”
“I’m not a loser. I just feel bad.”
“Well, that pretty much makes you a loser.”
There was a time when Lily and I were like mirrors of each other. We were both born during freak snowstorms in September, only one year apart, and people always thought we were twins. Sometimes, we’d pretend it was true. We’d dress alike and sleep in the same bed and speak to each other in a language that no one else could understand.
But Lily started having problems after our mom died, and she had to meet with a lot of doctors and take a lot of tests. Anyway, it turned out she’s actually some sort of genius, and they decided to move her up to ninth grade. She got to become a siren, a waitress, and a high school student all in the same year, and now it’s like she’s determined to prove she’s worthy of all that maturity, which seems to involve being really mean all the time and acting like she barely knows me.
I wait a few minutes until I’m sure they’ve gone, and then I braid my hair, splash water on my face, and head downstairs. I pull a ripped wool sweater on over the leggings and T-shirt I slept in the night before, and I shove my feet into an old pair of rain boots that are too big for me. Our closets are all in tangles, and it’s impossible to tell who anything belongs to. I think this sweater was my mom’s. I think the boots are Lily’s.
Lily is already in the truck, and leaning on the horn.
Lula puts on a denim jacket and pulls her long hair free from the collar. She grabs an armload of textbooks and rushes out the door.
Lara is still pouring her coffee into a thermos. She gives me a quick, worried smile as she reaches for her keys. “Your hair’s starting to change.” She tugs on my braid.
“What do you mean?”
“Just that it’s starting to get lighter, you know, like ours.”
“Does it look really weird?”
“Well, we can always bleach it for you, but it might be better just to let it grow in naturally. It’s sort of a pretty color.”
“I liked it the way it was.”
Lily leans on the horn again, and Lara gives me another crooked smile. “All set?”
I nod and sling my schoolbag, a slouchy, multicolored tote bag I found in the attic last summer, over my shoulder. “All set.”
On my way out the door, I catch sight of my reflection in the hall mirror. The glass is all smoky and warped, but still, I can see it. My hair is mostly dark, the way it’s always been, but the platinum is creeping in from the ends. It’s a bright, bleached, electric-looking shade, and I can begin to see her then, my full siren self. She’s just a little taller than I am now, and she has hair the color of lightning.
Dana Langer holds a BA in creative writing from Brandeis University where she received the Dafna Zamarripa-Gesundheit Fiction Prize. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter and works as a high school English teacher. Siren Sisters is her first novel. Check her out online at MonstersinLit.Blogspot.com and on Twitter @DanicaLanger.
Despite the serious subject matter, the characters are likable and the story proceeds with a light touch. VERDICT Beautifully written and vividly told, this is an excellent choice for thoughtful readers and a vehicle for classroom discussion.
– School Library Journal, Starred
Purposeful messages for inclusion and against stereotyping are scattered throughout. Touching on family relationships, grieving, growing up, first romance, and Norse mythology, this is an exciting fantasy with a heart-stopping ending by an author to watch.
– Kirkus Reviews
Though not a typical coming-of-age story, the author still manages to weave in the concerns every young girl faces in a touching and poignant way. This is a wonderful new fantasy story sure to please.