Understanding this: I was not always as I am now.
I began in the forest, so long ago now that I barely remember my birth; those first few moments of exuberant life, the newness of sun and air. I grew straight upwards, unfurling myself joyously, stretching my branches to the sky and my roots beneath the soil. Mine was a childhood of breezes and mushrooms, or sunlight and snow. Birds twittered between my branches, insects tested my leaves, and I was happy. So happy. I stood tall and proud between my sisters, and kissed the rain as it fell.
I had never heard of the ocean. I had never heard of singing. And I knew nothing of axes; only the sounds they made; the harsh thunk thunk, echoing through the forest. I stood awake and listened in the grey light of morning, my leaves quivering, tight with fear at this rampaging beast, until at last they came for me.
I watched as my sisters were toppled one by one. I felt the boots of the workmen pacing around my trunk, and I stood as firm and straight as I dared— to show that I was not afraid.
Then the sharpness. Then the pain. Then the roaring in my bark and the pounding in my roots.
And I fell.
There is little I remember after that.
I know I was taken on a cart piled high with my sisters. I do not remember the countryside, or the pitted little roads upon which we drove, but in my stupor I remember every bump and pothole. I heard the cry of the driver and the harsh neighing of his horses, but I understood none of it.
Then there was darkness. Darkness for so very long.
I was reshaped; my bark stripped, my branches torn. Nails pierced my flesh, saws roared through my fibres. When I at last awoke to myself, I had been hammered into a new shape; I had been given sails and a mast, and at my head— strangest of all— a human body. Eyes and hands and lips carved from my old familiar flesh, through which I could peer at the world and taste for the first time the salt of the sea.
It was a new, startling sensation, and although I wondered at the unfamiliarity, I shrivelled back from myself, understanding for the first time what it was to feel naked, violated.
A boat, I later learned. And I, its figurehead.
Through my new eyes I saw the harbour, the winding smog of the city. I saw the river upon which I had been built, and I saw at last the people; they who had ripped me from my home without ceremony, and forced me into an approximation of their likeness.
Slowly, slowly, I learned the language of men. I learned new words: ‘London’, ‘Captain’, ‘Port’ and ‘Starboard.’ I learned the chattering voices of my crew. I learned their sorrows and victories, the strange shouts they called across my decks to one another. And for the first time I heard my name:
I had never been given a name before, and I felt no pride in having been given one, but I tried it sometimes, as I stood alone at night. I tested the word on my new wooden tongue, tasting the shape of it:
At last I was set free of my moorings, cast adrift down the great winding river, and dragged out to the boundless sea. Clutched in the arms of the currents, I went where the sea and the sky pulled me, my face cast towards the horizon.
We sailed to Spain, and then onwards down the Spanish coast. I learned what excitement was, in those first weeks, and I learned immense boredom. I learned the line of the horizon and the vast map of stars. I learned that the sky looked the same here as it had back home, and I took comfort in the familiar constellations of my childhood. I learned the songs of the sailors— always at work along my back, like scuttling ants. And, in time, I too learned to sing.
I could not sing as they did, having only a crude wooden tongue and no lungs to speak of, but I found I had a song of my own; I could whisper in the creaking of my sails and the groaning of my cannons, in the roar of waves against my hull. I would join in the sailors’ shanties as best I could, and forget briefly the torment of my capture.
And then one day, low across the waves, the songs returned to us.
They came as the rush of wind and the spray of foam, soft and light and silvery-thin. It grew louder as we sailed, until a high jut of rock rose on the horizon, stabbing up towards the sky. And perched on its magnificent crags, pale in the morning gloom…
Creatures. Such beautiful creatures, their voices lifted in song.
A saw silver scales, I saw eyes dark as midnight; human faces without the emotion of humanity, without the longing I had learned to recognise.
And their song…
This was not the birdsong of my home, nor the silent growing song of my sisters. These were no sailor shanties.
I listened, enraptured, and for the first time since my confinement I felt joy.
The sailors bellowed these creatures’ names, snatched away on the howling wind;
My name. I caught my silhouette, cast out high above the waves, and I saw at last the familiar form of myself. Saw what shape I had become.
These creatures were not the sisters I knew; they were not the forest, nor fit for any land but the one beneath the waves, but I recognised my kindred form, and in desperation I sang out to them.
I had no voice, no lungs, no working tongue, but I sang with every sound I had.
I sang until I thought I could sing no more.
And in the darkness— oh sweet joy— in the darkness I was heard.
I cast out my mind to my long-dormant sisters, to the planks and blocks and frames that had once been my body. I found glimmers of myself in every corner, and I gathered them back in one final push.
With all my might, I turned myself towards the sirens, and I swam. Even in my true form, I had been capable only of miniscule movement, each slow inch towards the sun, but now I knew the pull of my body.
I felt freedom, the deep thrill of autonomy—
—-then the rocks. Then the screams; the shudder of impact and the wrenching of my timbers. There was a terrible wailing.
And I kept going.
I felt the crash of the waves and I kept going.
I felt the crunch as my bow splintered, I heard the screams of the sailors.
And I kept going.
Inch by inch, piece by piece, I dragged myself towards the song. Until the sea thundered through my decks and rendered me to pieces. Until my mast snapped, and I felt the juddering in my bones as I broke apart.
And for the second time I fell.
I lie here at the bottom of the ocean.
My bow sits in pieces, wrapped in the warm embrace of sand. The sailors are gone, or lie beside me as bones and scraps. The world is cold here. It is dark and silent.
And above me I hear the singing. The singing of the sirens.
One day, perhaps, they will find me. They will wrap me in their arms, pull me at last from my creaking bow, and bear me up with them to the surface. I will become something else— not wood, not ship, not flesh and bone, but something more. My eyes will open, my hands will flash with scales, I will feel the wind on my face and the salt in my hair. I will hear my voice for the first time— not as a creak or a groan or the rustle of leaves, but raised in song.
For now I lie. I watch the fathoms float above me, prickled with stars and cast with the shadows of faraway ships, and I sing. I lift my voice to the call of the forest, the roar of the shipyard, the cry of my crew. I sing for myself, and I sing for my sisters. And one day, one day, they will hear me.
And they will come.