by H T Garton
When they sent Ewan to the State Secure Hospital, I thought I would never have to see or think about him again.
Twenty years later, Granddad died. No one but Gran and I turned up to mourn his passing. I had never given much thought to how sour things must have turned for him and Gran since the day Ewan crashed into the jetty with the butchered remains of his best friend on board.
Gran took her time before she recognised me. When she did, joy obscured the grief in her eyes for a moment.
“Alison! I thought I’d lost you forever!” she cried as she clasped me to her. I smelled the salt in her tears and the familiar lavender of her soap. I went back to her home, which seemed even smaller than I remembered it.
While she rattled around her tiny kitchen preparing tea, I studied the photographs all over the living room walls and mantelpiece. I found only one with Ewan and me together with both our parents. In it, I am smiling at the new baby in mum’s arms. Dad looks ready to burst with pride as he stands behind, enveloping us with his brawny arms. Mum is tilting her head to one side as though distracted by a distant sound.
“He was such a lovely wee boy. Easy to love. And always so eager to help with everything. I worried it was because he wanted to make sure we wouldn’t stop loving him. As if! Even after... You always love your children, if not everything they do,” she said as she poured. “There was a lot of whispering that it was our fault.” Her eyes were pale as though shame had drained the colour out of them. “We brought him up, after all. Others blamed your mum, saying it was hereditary. Your mother was always highly-strung, but she didn’t start acting strangely ‘til the shock of losing your dad. You could hardly say it was her fault, but people always want to put the blame somewhere. How is she now?” she asked.
“Physically well. Very strong, in fact.”
“We never heard a word from her since she took you away. For a long time I thought she might get well enough to come for Ewan. As time went on, I hoped she might come to see him at least,” her eyes darkened.
“How is Ewan?” I asked, not out of any genuine interest but because I couldn’t talk to her about mum.
“I haven’t been to see him since they moved him into that fancy new building for patients getting ready for their release.”
“It’s still very high security. It’s within the hospital grounds.”
“They’re going to let him out?”
“Yes. They think he’s ready. He told them he accepted he did it and that he is ill. Apparently he’s doing well with his treatment. But,” she hesitated. I might be family, but she hardly knows me well enough to confide in me. Perhaps it was out of desperation that she continued anyway, “He told me something.”
“I think he’s telling them what they want to hear. I don’t believe he’s really any better.”
“Shouldn’t you tell someone at the hospital?”
“I can’t,” she looked down at her tightly-clasped hands with lumpy veins criss-crossing the backs of them creating blue ridges. “It would be a betrayal. He trusts no one in this world except me. I don’t know what it would do to him if he were to find out I’d told.”
“But you think he should stay where he is?”
There was a long pause before she mouthed the word ‘Yes.’
“But he’ll be released if you don’t say anything.”
After studying her hands for a while longer, she looked me in the eye, “You could do it,” she said.
Before I could list my excuses: he doesn’t know me; it’s a long way; I have responsibilities, she said, “He told me he can prove he is innocent. He says he’s got evidence now that he plans to take to the authorities as soon as he’s out. You should have heard him rambling about DNA and proving they’re real and out there!”
Before I could meet Ewan, a sturdy psychiatric nurse searched me with a thoroughness that allowed for no modesty, then escorted me through a maze of shiny-floored corridors and electronically-sealed doors. We marched out into the lush green of the hospital grounds. I quickened my pace as we passed the looming grey structure of the main building. Hundreds of barred windows too high for humans to look out of stared down at me with sightless black eyes.
The nurse matched me step for step as he spoke, “Ewan’s settled well into Bevan House. We’re very pleased with his progress.”
We came to a single-storey building, its windows without bars. It could have passed for a house but for the secured entrance.
The nurse showed me around as he explained, “Only our most low-risk patients are housed here. We’re always on hand, but they have a lot of freedom and independence in here. There’s a communal kitchen and living area, games room with a pool table...”
Not a soul was around making use of the facilities. I tilted my head to one side, then the other, looking, listening. The nurse showed me into a cosy living room for patients and their visitors.
“He must be in his room. I’ll fetch him and I’m afraid I have to stay in the room with you both, but honestly, you’ve got nothing to fear – it’s just the regulations.”
The knot in my stomach tightened while I waited. I wondered if it would be like the last time. Seeing Ewan then had stirred memories buried so deep and long ago that I had thought they were dreams.
The doors opened and I stopped breathing. The moment I laid eyes on him I let out a breath and the knot unravelled. Now in his early forties, he still had the face of an angel with the ocean in his eyes.
Ewan sat in the chair opposite me, shifted about, then relaxed back into the thin leather cushion. I smiled at the male version of me, whose soul had remained intact despite his incarceration.
“Wow,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”
I wanted to tell him how the soft burr of his accent, undiluted by either time or place, brought to mind images of our father and transported me to a carefree past.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
“I can’t believe you’re here, after all this time. I always dreamt of meeting you one day. I never thought it would somewhere like this. I thought it would be me who found you.”
Ewan put his hand in his pocket and brought out what looked like a large plectrum. Smooth and black, it absorbed light one minute and reflected it the next. It had the hypnotising effect of being there and not there at the same time. He alternated between turning it in his fingers and tapping his knee with it.
“What about mum, will she...?”
“No. She’s too unwell. I’m sorry.”
Ewan frowned and fiddled with the plectrum.
“How’s Gran?” he asked at last.
“Ok, considering. She told me all about you growing up. There’s photos of you everywhere. You look just like dad.”
“What was he like?”
“I don’t remember much about him; his voice was kind and his laugh was loud. I was only eight when he died.”
“Was killed, you mean.”
“He was lost at sea. It’s treacherous out there, you know that.”
Ewan said nothing.
“It was a terrible time for mum,” I continued. “And me. I had to look after her as well as you. She was so ill with grief and didn’t even know you were there half the time. She still misses you and dad,” I lied. Mum is no longer capable of remembering, much less missing, her once beloved husband and son. Her humanity leached away so gradually over the years, I didn’t notice until it was gone.
I stole a glance over at the nurse. Slumped low in his chair, he had politely immersed himself in a dog-eared detective novel.
“Why did she only take you?” Ewan’s voice quivered a little.
“To protect you, I suppose. It was difficult for her but we all knew Gran and Granddad would love you and look after you and you would be safe with them.”
“Granddad only visited me once,” he murmured, staring at the floor. “And then he hardly said anything.”
“What was it that he did say?”
“Just that I’m not mad, and he was sorry he had let me take the boat out. Then he cried.”
“He didn’t say anything else? That he believed you?”
“Then he’d have been in here with me!” Ewan almost laughed.
“I don’t know how anyone can stand being cooped up like this.”
“I’m warm, well fed and I’ve plenty to do,” Ewan answered. “I finished high school in here. Did some other studies as well. I keep fit in the gym, watch TV, play video games. I’ve got a few mates. I feel safe in here.”
“Safe?” I pictured the main building, with ward upon ward full of shuffling zombies and strait-jacketed lunatics.
Ewan glared at me, leaned forward and hissed, “You know what from.”
Of course I know. I grew up on the same island listening to the same folktales. We told stories about the sirens every time we lost a man to the sea. In myths as ancient as the sea itself, the half-woman half-bird creatures prey on seafaring men, enchanting them with their supernatural melodies and luring them to their deaths. Occasionally someone, like Granddad, would claim to have had a lucky escape. But no one really believed they had seen anything more deadly than an albatross.
“Ewan, they aren’t real. You had a mental illness that caused you to hallucinate. You told the doctors you accepted that.”
Ewan grimaced, “So I did. In a way. After all those years of being told what must have happened. But you know, late at night, alone in my room, I stare at these hands, and ask myself if I could have done what they said I did and yet have no memory at all of doing it?”
He jabbed at his temple with his forefinger.
“All I’ve got in here are images – they tell me they are not memories, they can’t be memories – of creatures that don’t, can’t possibly, exist, torturing Eddie, eating him.”
He swallowed hard. “They said it was easier for me to believe nonsense than the truth. But in here, in my heart, I never really believed I could have gouged his eyes out and gutted him. Eddie was my best friend since primary school. I had no reason to kill him. They made up that stuff about arguing over a girl. I never minded Eddie going out with Shona.”
“Ewan, if you still think like this, perhaps you’re not as ready as you think to...”
“I kept on and on at Granddad until he let me take the boat out,” Ewan ignored me. “Ed and me had a good time fishing, a few beers and we were chilling out, watching the sunset when we heard that noise. I’ll never forget it. I’d never want to hear anything like that again. Ed called it the most beautiful singing he’d ever heard but to me it was an awful screeching racket like a nest of ravenous seagulls. He said I was tone deaf, just like Granddad. We saw some flashes like when someone points a mirror at the sun only it was way up in the sky. Then I saw them, gigantic black wings, swooping and circling, getting nearer. I said something like ‘What the fuck?’ but Ed didn’t answer. I looked at him and he was crying, real tears rolling down his cheeks! When I asked him what was wrong, he shook his head and told me to listen. That’s when I remembered the stories about becoming paralysed if you ever hear a siren singing. I didn’t believe it, not even then, but I was frightened at the way Ed was acting and these flying monsters were getting nearer and nearer. So I dropped everything, screamed at Ed that we’ve got to get back to shore but he still didn’t move. Then I heard their wings and knew it was too late. They were too fast; the boat could never outrun them. It shook when they landed.”
“Ewan, I don’t need to hear this...”
“Please. Please hear me out.”
“Everyone knows the story, Ewan. No one believes it. It’s too...” I stopped myself. After all, he needed to tell it and, with my memory going the way of mum’s, it would do me no harm to have it refreshed from a different point of view.
“If you listen, you’ll understand. I didn’t just see them. I heard them, felt them! There were two. They were so, so… strange… But so beautiful. They had the bodies of tall women. Their skin was shiny and black like wet rubber. Their wings came out from their shoulders and reached down to their shins. Their heads were human-shaped, but smooth, hard, like they were made of marble, with two massive bulging clear crystals for eyes.
One stared at Eddie and the other at me. Eddie was spaced-out. I was shouting at him, scared shitless. But he never heard me. The sirens kept turning their heads from side to side, like birds do. I was freaking out. There was nowhere to go except overboard, but I thought we’d be better off there than with these monsters, and then…”
Ewan stopped to catch his breath.
“One attacked Eddie. These massive talons unfurled from and she… she… stabbed them into him. His eyes opened a bit wider but he never moved. He watched her slice him open. I tried to stop it, but the one near me had my arms pinned with one gigantic claw. I saw all his innards spilled out while he was still alive. And then... Then she started eating. I shut my eyes. But the noise…”
“I was screaming all the while. Then the one holding me let me go and had her fill. I saw the light in his eyes go just before she dug them out. I thought that was it, it was me next. I kept my eyes shut and waited. Then I felt their weight lift off the boat and heard giant wings again. I don’t know how long I sat with Ed telling him how sorry I was.”
“Gran wants me to tell the doctors she thinks you’re not ready to come home. That, in fact, you’re still sick and dangerous.”
“She said that?” his eyes filled with tears.
“Yes, but I’m not going to,” I said and his eyes lit up again. “She told me about the evidence you say you’ve found.” I pointed at the object in his hand. “Where’d you get the piece of talon?” I asked, although I already knew.
A puzzled look creased his fine features, but then he held the plectrum up to the light, gazing at as he spoke.
“It must have come off when she stuck her claw in my arm. Hurt like hell when I cut it out. I was on suicide watch then and they took it off me. I only got it back when they let me move in here. I can’t tell you the relief when I saw it there in the bottom of the box. It means I’m not a monster, and I’m not insane. I haven’t let go of it since. Out of this world, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. Then, with a sidelong glance at the nurse who was still engrossed in his book, I stretched out my hand and snatched it from him. “I recognised it straight away.”
Ewan’s face began to distort with confusion. I leaned into his face and spoke slowly, “Now, is there anything else?”
He shook his head, staring at me.
“Don’t make me come back here,” I said. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t let you leave here. Not ever.”
Then I started to sing. I sang of my love for Ewan and of my sorrow, knowing that soon I would feel nothing, and would no longer remember him. Ewan put his hands up to cover his ears and screamed, and screamed.
The nurse listened to the beauty of my siren song. I watched his shoulders heaving and salty tears rolling down his face. His paperback dropped to the floor and he looked up at me, transfixed by my transformation.Too late to save their colleague, staff came racing in and escorted me away from Ewan, the lunatic who was still screaming.