Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Siren Sings

June 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Fiction, Secrets of NYC, Stories

(SS Sirius *movie still/see below – Photoshopped by Joe)

It was a late winter afternoon, and the salty breeze from the East River grew colder by the moment. Jack and I were onboard the oyster sloop, about to shove off from Miller’s Landing by Fulton Ferry. We were going out on our nightly patrol, looking for signs of the steamer carrying the siren named Dido or any other demon ship that might try to enter the harbor.

Gabe the gorilla was a few hundred feet ahead of us in a cutter with two Delaware Indians. The sun lit up the full sails of the single-masted craft and sparkled on the sea-green waves. Wrapped in bearskin coats, the braves sat like eager dogs in the bow of the boat. I didn’t know what they were getting paid, but they clearly wanted to prove their worth.

Their boat was headed across the river bearing towards the mouth at the tip of Manhattan. Already the cutter seemed dwarfed by the multitude of tall sailing ships with their towering masts and webs of rope, docked side-by-side along the Manhattan wharves.

A man came through the landing’s iron gates. After a few seconds, I recognized him from the shipping office at the Fulton Street warehouse. He was a thin man with piercing black eyes; his name was Daniel Cotton. Jack spoke to him quite often, though Daniel seemed to do most of the talking. I thought he might be Jack’s boss.

Our fire brigade came in behind Daniel, pulling the fire engine. They parked the apparatus just past the gates. The firemen would spend the night, waiting for further command by Jack, in case we needed help battling those onboard a ship. Similarly, a group of men also waited across the river at a South Street wharf, and just the other day, Jack had permanently dispatched another crew to Coney Island. He had gotten word that on that island’s western end, demon acolytes had performed a fire ritual on one of the docks, cursing it so ships could unload the unholy and their “baggage”. Just like the slip where we currently were docked, that had been cursed months ago, leaving the planking blackened and charred.

Daniel culled two firemen from the group and approached our vessel. “A small steamer flying a British flag was spotted off the coast of Long Island,” he said in an aristocratic voice. “Can’t say for certain that it’s Dido’s craft, but it most certainly is carrying a ghostly cargo.”

“How do you know?” Jack asked.

“The name of the ship is the SS Sirius,” he said. “It was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.”

“Beat the Great Western by a day, sure,” Jack said. “But went down a few years ago.”

“Yes,” Daniel replied. “Off the coast of Ireland; twenty people were killed.”

“Ireland, where things can go for a second life,” I said under my breath, as his words brought to mind the Irish vampire that we had battled over a month ago at Miller’s Landing.

“Do you mean to say that the Sirius is a ghost ship?” Jack asked.

Daniel didn’t respond, though came aboard with the two firemen and said to raise the sails. “I want to go out with you tonight, and see this vessel with my own eyes.”

“You sure?” Jack said.

“Absolutely,” Daniel said.

I looked off to the cutter that was now in the middle of the river. The gorilla stood tall in the stern of the boat. His hands were high above his head. In one fist he held a nail-studded bludgeon as he twisted and stretched his limbs. The other day, Jack had told him to start carrying a side arm. In response, Gabe had smiled, his thin teeth pearl white and perfect, and said he’d wear a holstered gun. “But there it will stay,” he had said, and stuck the spiked end of the bludgeon, menacingly close to my face. “This is my weapon of choice. It brings out the fear in men’s eyes and makes killing fun.”

The twilight skies were streaked with purple and orange. The clouds hung low in the Narrows strait between Staten Island and Brooklyn. In that direction, a heavy fog gathered over the water. I stared at the fog and connecting clouds and could make out what appeared to be a massive fist-shaped cloud.

Jack told me to prepare the staves for the marking of the demon. From the sloop’s cabin, I retrieved two long staves and then a small box. I set everything down on the deck, kneeled, and opened the box. Packed in straw were two razor-sharp branding irons. The pattern they formed was a script letter “D.” I imagined it stood for “Dido.”

I kept looking off to the Narrows as I attached the brands to the ends of the staves. Most days since I was a child, I’d been aware of a change in myself during the gloaming. Yet in the past few days, ever since the Empress had given me the elixir of life, my senses had been heightened. The night came alive now more than ever, and I could better sense the voices and movement of the dead.

Daniel sat on the side of the boat. “What is it?” he asked me.

I looked at Daniel, and then Jack. It seemed as if the world was a giant cauldron that had begun to stir, and something in the mix was just not right. I felt it in my stomach.

“Go on,” Jack said.

“I have a bad feeling about tonight. Maybe we’re going about it all wrong.”

“What should we do?” Daniel asked.

“I don’t know, but there might be a better way.” Both men stared at me. “The siren is said to have deadly powers over men. Perhaps, we could employ a woman against the siren? Or maybe, when daylight comes, Dido must have to hide in a hole or somewhere out of the way. Can we track her down then?”

“She is a water-bound creature,” Daniel said.

“Don’t worry about getting killed,” Jack said. “Because if you die tonight, I’ll replace you tomorrow. That goes for all of us, including Daniel.”

Daniel nodded.

Close to midnight, we spotted a two-masted steamer with sails raised and two side-wheels churning. It was making its way along the foggy Brooklyn shoreline by Coney Island. Though shrouded in a haze, the vessel seemed perfectly normal; there was nothing ghostly about it. Yet Daniel seemed positive it was the Sirius.

So did I. But I couldn’t say exactly why.

The gorilla maneuvered his cutter near our craft. We quickly planned to meet the steamer with our smaller crafts in the Narrows, to come at it from both sides, hoping the faster craft wouldn’t elude us.

We sailed back toward Manhattan and out of the thick fog. We lost sight of the steamer, though it seemed to be headed west, straight for Staten Island. After about fifteen minutes, Jack gave the signal to the gorilla and both our crafts sailed ahead in unison.

When we had passed through the Narrows and back into Lower NY Bay, there was still no sign of the steamer. We then sailed along the Staten Island shoreline, where the fog was even thicker than on the Brooklyn side.

We couldn’t see a thing, save a few blurry lights, which gave us an idea where the sandy shore was. One of the braves pointed ahead, and a second later, the steamer’s bow jutted out in our direction. The wheels on both sides of the ship had stopped turning, smoke no longer poured out of the smoke stack at midship, and the raised sails twisted askew. Clearly, no one was at the craft’s helm.

There had been a steady breeze most of the night. Now it started to whistle. Jack held a finger over his mouth. The breeze seemed melodic…

Camptown Races,” I said under my breath, recognizing the song.

On Jack’s command, the Indians set afire the tips of two cloth-covered arrows and launched them at the steamer. The arrows arched high and flew down toward the main deck. They vanished into the fog without another sound.

The melodic breeze grew louder. Now I heard a woman singing, but her voice seemed inside my head.

The Camptown ladies sing this song,
Doo-da, Doo-da.
The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long,
Oh, de doo-da day…”

We pulled in close to the steamer. The gorilla’s boat was just ahead of ours. Visibility became even poorer. The fog was like a thick soup.

Arms folded across his chest, Daniel said to be ready to board the vessel. Jack and I clutched our staves. The firemen brandished side arms as did the Indians, who still held their bows at the ready. The gorilla rested the shaft of his bludgeon on his shoulder. The light of cheerful insanity flickered in his eyes.

The fog began to lift. It seemed large sacks were strewn about the steamer’s deck, but it quickly became apparent that they were bodies.

Goin’ to run all night,
Goin’ to run all day.
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag,
Somebody bet on the gray…”

The steamer was littered with naked corpses. Throats cut. Faces slashed. Genitals cut off. All seemed male, though some had decayed so badly, I couldn’t be certain. A man was tied by his hands and feet to the ship’s bowsprit. Gouges of skin and flesh and been ripped away from his body. It seemed that birds of prey had feasted on him.

“Oh, the long tailed filly and the big black horse,
Doo-da, doo-da.
Come to a mud hole and they all cut across,
Oh, de doo-da day…”

The Indians fired two metal-tipped arrows directly at the steamer’s wooden hull. They disappeared into the fog.

“Rocks!” the gorilla cried.

Slick black rocks poked out of the water to our right. The water was shallow. Yet the steamer showed no sign of running aground.

The Camptown ladies sing this song,
Doo-da, Doo-da.
The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long,
Oh, de doo-da day…”

A woman wearing a corset and pantaloons came out on the steamer’s deck. She stepped over the bodies without looking down. Strings of glittering jewels were weaved through her hair. She waved and sang with a smile:

I went down there with my hat caved in,
Doo-da, doo-da.
I came back home with a pocket full of tin,
Oh, de doo-da day…”

The woman jumped over the side and splashed into the water. The jewels brilliantly lit up her whole head and the green water as she sunk. It was a moment after she was gone, that the steamer also vanished.

A bell began to ring. I turned and spotted a lighted buoy from which the bell rung. It marked the **shallow waters where we had just passed.

Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Thirty-Nine

Delicious pizza, ice cold beer, a cap from the 1850s & Staten Island

The Empress

Elixir of Life

The Siren Sings

(*Replica of the SS Sirius built for the 1939 Paramount movie Rulers of the Sea.

Name was changed to Dog Star in film. I think this photo is a movie still.)

**Hoffman and Swinburne Islands are now located in these shallow areas.

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