Stories have power, and not just the big ones, the myths and legends. The narratives we spin to explain our choices to ourselves, our small personal mythologies, those have perhaps the most power of all. And, as Lee Conell reminds us in American Short Fiction’s November story, “A Guide to Sirens,” it’s dangerous when our fictions start to fall apart.
Frank is a fifty-year-old divorced tour guide for an island resort. He leads honeymooning guests around the grounds and tells them of the island’s history and legends while actually trying to sell them hotel extras like a trip to the in-house spa. Most of the tales Frank tells have a tiny seed of truth, but are otherwise entirely made up. But Frank doesn’t mind. The guests at the hotel are on vacation or honeymoon, all of them trying to avoid something, and we get the feeling that Frank is, too:
For a while, after the divorce, Frank worked as a guide in all sorts of different museums and cities. Then he came back to this island. He likes his arrangement with the hotel and he likes the ahistorical attitude of the hotel’s visitors. They’re fine with ignoring troubling cultural pasts, because their honeymoons are designed around ignoring their own pasts, infidelities, prenuptial doubts.
There had been an order of Franciscan monks on the island, and later a naval base during World War II, and only after that had the island been taken over by the hospitality industry. One of Frank’s made-up stories involves church bells that were cast into the sea by one of the island’s soldiers who had been turned deaf by the bombs of war, and a new wife who tries to drown herself in the waves many years later, only to hear the bells under the water and be saved. After Frank tells this story one day, he notices a woman in the tour group staring at him, a woman who looks eerily like his ex-wife when she was young.
As the story unfolds, we learn Frank and his ex-wife had honeymooned at that very hotel twenty-odd years ago. We learn the reasons for their separation, or what Frank tells himself the reasons were, all of this dredged up by that woman in Frank’s tour group. Conell’s prose is quietly atmospheric, lending each event a ghostly aura, building an expectation that Frank’s myths are truer than they seem. So when Frank feels drawn to sit down by the woman at the hotel bar and she tells him something impossible, it doesn’t seem so impossible at all. When she asks him to meet her on the beach in an hour, when she tells him she’ll show him where to hear the bells, it seems inevitable that he will go:
She’s already there when Frank arrives at the beach. He wears nautical blue swimming trunks. She wears a sleek black Speedo, a one-piece, all business, her hair pulled back in a ponytail now. There are other couples on the beach but they’re very much occupied with one another. The woman waves to him as he comes nearer. Her toenails are painted gold. The ocean is black. The water will be colder than he likes.
Conell weaves a tale that blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction, memory and myth. Her siren’s call catches us as surely as Frank. We won’t reveal any more, you’ll have to go read the story, go walk into the water yourself.