The languidly vain temptress sat in the moonlight, warm and dreamy, admiring her reflection in the rock pool, finding no reason to be dissatisfied except when a small wave surged over the sea wall and rippled the reflection she found so pleasant. Her mother Melpomene had named her Thelxiope, about which she had frequently complained, telling her mother, “I can’t sit around rocks wailing seductively at sailors with a name that means persuasive face. Hideous and even plain people have persuasive faces. I want a name that sounds pretty. Something fetching.”
“You do understand, Thelxiope, that you aren’t meant to court fellows into some sort genuine security?”
“That’s it!” Thelxiope had enthused. “I’ll call myself Courtney.”
“That’s a trollop’s name. “You won’t hear it from my lips. Next thing, you’ll be tattooing images of drowned sailors among the debris of shipwrecks on your buttocks.”
“That does sound nice, mother. Do you think Hephaestus could ink it on for me?”
“No, I do not, Thelxiope. Your father, Achelous, will have words with that peculiar person. It’s bad enough you are going to call yourself a courtesan.”
“Courtney, mother,” Thelxiope pointed out. “It’s not the same thing. But I do wish these wings wouldn’t regrow every night. The feathers make me sneeze and interfere with my melodious luring; and I’m sure they don’t do anything to make my face seem persuasive.”
“You can only blame yourself. If you and your sisters had beaten those sanctimonious Muses in the song contest they wouldn’t have been able to take your wing feathers, and you could fly around triremes and fishing boats more obtrusively; then at least you would be good at something; you could be an awesome monstrosity.”
“I don’t want to be a monstrosity, mother. I want to be cute and attractive.”
“Fiddlesticks, Thelxiope. Don’t you want your father to be proud?” asked Melpomene.
“There’s no point crying over spilt milk; the Muses get the wing feathers every time they regrow. So I can never be more than a mediocrity.”
“You are such a disappointment, Thelxiope, just like the rest of your sisters,” sighed Melpomene. She dived into the ocean leaving Thelxiope to her own devices, which consisted in the main of contemplating her likeness in the rock pool. Melpomene thought she had best impress upon Hephaestus that he was not to apply any ink to her daughter’s buttocks under any circumstances, so that Thelxiope had some time to herself to adjust to her newly adapted moniker; so she was kept busy with the combined tasks of adapting and admiring, but somehow she was up to the dual demands, which meant the added burden of congratulating herself. But even then Courtney remained composed save for a slight curling of her pretty, upper lip, and a wrinkling of her smooth, straight, neatly formed nose, caused by intrusive waves disturbing her reflection. But once the water had settled and her likeness was before her gaze, her features settled into their usual elegant deportment.
Yet there was also a melancholy in the siren’s eyes, as she perched over the rock pool dangling her lithe, lissom legs in the refreshingly cool water. For she could not but help remember that Jeepers had not succumbed to her allure. Would Jeepers ever succumb to a succubus, she wondered. Did he understand the angst he caused her by his failure to be infatuated? Had Jeepers no heart? Would she waste away admiring her own reflection waiting for her to worship it? Would Jeepers never bond his love to her, destroying his equanimity by shackling himself to hopelessness? Softly sad Courtney sat on the edge of the lapping rock pool, fingering the letters of Jeepers’ name in the water, looming from her memory, but fading in the limpid liquid where she applied her digit pen. She put her fetching face beneath the water and sounded out the name; though muffled, it boomed, a sound so ideal that it should be ineffable; yet it was healing, gentle and cool as the bubbles from her mouthed utterance became a turbulent ebullience around her submerged head, troubling her with their vibrant transience. Bringing herself out of the water, she sighed, “Oh, Jeepers, damn you.” But she did not exclaim. Courtney was far too elegant.
Besides the seven letters that united to form the name of anyone who would not be allured by Courtney retained a euphony, a cohesion of sentiment that could not be disturbed by a cacophonous exclamation. Courtney was even prepared to consider reciprocating Jeepers’ fondness if she could elicit it. Such a union implied a combination in a loving harmony, but one that would oblige Courtney to abandon the destruction of others weaker than Jeepers whom she could so easily entice. She asked herself, “Could the happiness I find in the love of Jeepers, if such a thing could occur, be worth the opportunity of lost schadenfreude? I delight so much in gloating over the shattered hearts I wreck. Would it be right to give up such pleasures?” Courtney wrestled with her conscience and also recalled some misgivings that had occurred to her before. She felt some feathers sprouting on her back but plucked them out with a dexterity born of habit. Flicking the fluff into the sea, she returned to the subject of her reluctant suitor. Jeepers was almost ancient; in fact, he might be regarded as something of an antique. Of course Courtney had lived through aeons, but as a youthful, unfading paradigm of pulchritude; her voice was famed as mellifluous and by regular plucking she had kept her feathery back a secret from everyone except Melpomene, Achelous, and her sisters. Hephaestus might find out if he decorated her buttocks. But despite the feathers, she would be forever nubile, at least in appearance. But Jeepers was a hoary, old goat; she doubted he had ever been tempting; always rather odd and weedy; deprived and depraved; yet she saw there was something rousing, even irresistible, in his combination of sagacity and prurience.
Yet Jeepers’ husky, wheezing speech, rattling against his belly that was just years away from becoming some massive embonpoint, still drew her to him. Her mother had said, “Thelxiope, I cannot fathom what interest you in that withered weathercock; he is incapable of obsession. His mind is constantly spinning with the wind from one whimsical interest to another. He’s just not the sort of person to smash himself on rocks for anyone.”
“Oh, mother, can’t I be interested in non-obsessive people, in people who have other interests, in people from whom I want to hide these constantly sprouting feathers. There are some people whose good opinion I would like to have, after all.”
“How about Hephaestus? He’s always changing his interests; not a day goes past without him becoming curious about something different. The only thing he’s ever been obsessed with is that strumpet, Aphrodite. He’s no uglier than Jeepers, and if he has honourable intentions towards you, I don’t mind if he tattoos your buttocks.”
“Mother, I certainly don’t want Hephaestus tattooing my buttocks uxoriously. But it’s useless trying to make you understand anything. I’ll go and wreck a ship.” IfMelpomene had not been Courtney’s mother she doubted she would ever bother talking to her. She never understood everything.
Though a dab hand at shipwrecking, Courtney sang her song of destruction in vain when she directed it at the ears of Jeepers. He was just as deaf as Narcissus had ever been, curious as he was about the process of ageing. Yet when he spoke, the whistling rattle of his voice was soothing in its sincerity, not meretricious nor malicious like the seductive song of Melpomene’s daughters. Though there was no apparent goodwill in the utterances of Jeepers, he was truthful, if only because indifferent to the profits of deception or mendacity.
Courtney was in the process of wrenching a tuft of feathers from her lower back when she observed Jeepers stretching himself along the opposite rock wall along the pool, one she had chosen because it provided a fine view of ships that passed through the Tyrrhenian Strait, but away from her chattering sisters, always arguing about who was the better wrecker. Being away from them she was less likely to suffer visits from Melpomene. And more likely to meet Jeepers.
She watched him as he leaned over the water to gaze at his own ancient visage in the wet, but not with the self-approbation that often consumed Courtney. He muttered into the lagoon, “I see I am too wizened for thoughts amorous or obscene. But my countenance is not as uninteresting as some who are prettier or handsomer. But it does not bemuse as much as one of those.” He was not obsessed at all, it was clear, for after just a moment he raised his eyes, that peered over a mass of crow’s feet straight towards Courtney, his aged orbs on the plane where hers were set. For a moment it was as if he flinched, shamed by the hideous mirroring in her gaze, as if it were his own basilisk glare that pierced through the moonlight, freezing him into a stillness in which he noticed the siren.
“Hello, old bird,” greeted Jeepers after a moment, causing Courtney to feel along her arms and legs for any feathers she had missed, and blushing at those that washed about in the water near her. The very suggestion that she was old struck her as the height of impertinence; she had no idea how many millennia ago Melpomene had given birth to her, but the idea of her being old was highly inappropriate, and inspired her with the highest dudgeon. She remained haughtily silent, refusing to reply to Jeepers’ jolly, impudent greeting. If only she had some other means of despatching mortals to their deaths than luring them by song to drowning or smashing on rocks. Her loathing was a youthful loathing that sliced into Jeepers’ sensibility piquing him with an awareness of his own hoary age. Yet he strove to deflect her quiet rage with self-deprecating humour. “How the creases on my visage turn smooth, Thelxiope.”
“I am not Thelxiope anymore. I am Courtney,” the avian siren informed him.
“A much easier name to pronounce if you are hoping to enter society,” replied Jeepers, hoping that acceptance of Thelxiope’s new moniker would go some way to appease her. Though he had known her for a good while, and was curious about the feathers that always floated near her, Jeepers was too daunted by her singular behaviour to ask her about them. He thought the ditties she sang during shipwrecks were a symptom of an unhinged mind; he wondered if she ripped out birds’ feathers for cruel amusement. But she was very pretty and that was the most important thing.
“Even with my old name, I would be more readily accepted in youthful society than you, wrinkly prune,” the siren hissed. She hissed, hard ruthless, spiteful, defiant. “There’s thousands more wrinkles on your face than there are feathers in a flock of ravens. I must be frank.”
“Do ravens fly in flocks?” As Jeepers spoke he noticed youthful vestige stirring, oddly vibrant. “I was under the impression they were fairly independent birds,” opined Jeepers.
“”Birds! Birds! Birds! It’s always birds with you. Why are you fixated on birds?” demanded Courtney.
“We were talking about ravens. So it seemed fitting to mention birds.”
“You disgust me, with these constant remarks about birds.” He wondered if the change of name was the cause of Courtney’s fury which struck him as very much out of character. He was pleased to note, though, that her passion had a contagion that ignited embers of youth that pulsed through his own being. It was flattering that he could so prick the young feather-brain’s consciousness that she could spend so much energy being angry with him. Jeepers judged her mood to be inspired by repulsion to his withered form, but it also had the effect of witchcraft. He felt his muscles tauten, his aches vanish; his hair felt thicker, oilier; his frame became straighter. Courtney noticed too, and her anger was dispelled by curiosity. “What lechery or witchery is this rousing trick? Have you imbibed some youthful elixir?”
“Not knowingly, unless there is some enlivening air in the ditties you chant to the ships that pass on the Tyrrhenian Strait.”
“Charge me with no lurid goad, old toad! I would not enthuse you with any vernal vigour.” In frenzied acrimony she rent out a newly emerged clump of feathers, hurling them tempestuously into the water, much to the amazement of Jeepers. “I see you are thinking about birds again, you louse!”
“No, dear Courtney. I had no thought of feathered creatures, but only of you, and your fierce loveliness; you are as glorious as Aphrodite herself, standing tall in her lustrous clam.”
“What say you? What do your words bode? But you are right, I am sure. I have always wished my mother had me in a clam.” Though Jeepers was still grizzled, and yet filled her with distaste, she was softening to him; she found herself ready to yield confidences to him that she had never shared with another.
“Courtney, my old heart is warmed by your confidence. Never before has anyone confided in me a wish to have been born in a clam.” The lapping of the water against the rocks provided a pleasing cadence in the pause following Jeepers’ appreciative utterance in his aged but mellow voice. “Yet I cannot rejoice in such a fleeting favour, knowing how my ancient appearance must repulse you.”
“From your appearance you might well be older than the life passages of a thousand clocks; in your wrinkled reflection I cannot rejoice,” echoed Courtney, mimicking her Tithonus with an affected, melancholy drawl. Though she mocked him, she was careful to hide a new handful of feathers she pulled from her back, covering her grimace with a flirtatious grimace. For the years were falling rapidly from Jeepers so that within hours it seemed he might change from Tithonus to Adonis. His burgeoning, luminous muscularity was almost brilliant in the moonlight; it thrilled her belly with desire. Courtney wondered if she need not remain chaste; she had never been told that sirens must be chaste. For Jeepers’ part, if his age were unburdened, would his old youth be rekindled, reborn afire. Direct as she had ever dared, she asked, “Will you be young before I am an aged hag?”
He raised his hand to his auricle like a white flag. Evidently his hearing had not rejuvenated. Or perhaps his ears were clogged with wax. Yet his reply was cogent. He told her, “I may not have the strength for this battle. Time is an adversary who’s hard to reverse, while your comeliness has an immortal quality, unlike the sweet bird of youth that abandons so many before they are ready to let it go.” There he was with talk of birds again; she would have to do something about these useless feathers.
But even if he remained fixated on birds and feathers and other avian things, Jeepers was lucid, and able to grasp the essence of desire, perhaps even engross senescent velleity, the old man’s curse, with lusty yearning. Courtney thrilled to see Jeepers stretch even straighter where he sat, thrusting out his limbs, without any tell-tale gasp or sigh that hinted at unattractive arthritic twinges. He was about to rise, to stand naked before her, an image on virile perfection Courtney sensed in her loins she could not resist. Perchance he expected to approach her to listen to Courtney’s sweetened replies made in response to his courteous suggestions.
Before Jeepers had shed his age, such replies were not forthcoming; Courtney would not add witty charm to subdue his foul form; it was enough she was prepared to accept his surrender without cajoling him. But now, four decades that had weighed upon his brow had vanished. Sweeter replies would end her cranky storm of proud petulance. But she saw she must become gentler by stages; it would not do to change from shrill shrew to doting dear in a single bound. He must see he must win her gentler words somehow. But instead of honeyed compliments he began with a display of robust athleticism. Instead of raising himself to his full height, he half lifted and half rolled as a showy prelude to shooting into the pool, hurtling with elegant swiftness through the lapping lagoon. Courtney’s eyes opened wide, she half let out a squeal. Never before had she seen a man who could control his path through water; she had only seen drowning sailors struggling for air; or seafarers dashed to pulp on jutting rocks; or helpless mariners devoured by sea monsters. Though Jeepers was only crossing a sheltered pool, the very possibility was enough to set her heart running, ticking like an over-wound clock. She shrieked in affectionate amazement, though Jeepers was not worthy of an affectionate shriek. Yet jealousy raged in her troubled heart, as if other nymphs had usurped her place. It was as if Eos had brought her auroral light early to bathe the glimmering Jeepers; or Echo had given up her melancholy to wash a more responsive Jeepers. For surely he was just as comely, inured with strong sinews down his back; his hair was a rich, glossy, dark brown; his eyes sparkled with a deep, clear blue.
Courtney was relieved that the charms of Eos or Echo had not detained Jeepers; possibly neither was even in the pool. Nimbly, he clambered up quickly though he had no need; Courtney had no will to move, even though there was a kerkouros in the offing, easy prey for any siren ready to do her duty. He stood before her to flaunt the blessed effects of the elixir he had won from the villainous witch, Erin the vile, had made mixing siren’s feathers with the ichor of Persephone she had stolen from a pomegranate tree where the goddess had pricked her finger. For Jeepers had sold his soul to Erin, the vile but exquisite queen of the Sea Goblins; he had promised his soul for a night of delight with Courtney.
The Goblin Queen had no wish for an unappealing minion, so she was happy to test Jeepers’ charms on Courtney, casting her magic from a small distance; her eyes shone with jealous pleasure as she spied the effect of her charms from a rock submerged a short depth in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Erin smiled as Courtney gasped at Jeepers’ glistening, half young nakedness; her desire kindled at the vision of a glorious, swelling manhood that stood erect before her.
She was filled with a forbidden wantonness, though the age of the lusty figure was still immoderate, in marked contrast to her own youthful appearance. But though other nymphs might deride or even scorn her for her yearning, she not help utter a hungry sigh, and gushed: “The end of my struggle with time is nigh! No longer will I wait for love. Or coitus.”
Her auricles trembled at words of the oracle, who had promised her a time of joy when she saw years roll back, and an ancient would become a youth in a single night. But Jeepers wasn’t quite youthful in her mind. “Jeepers, you are already glorious; but I would have you more juvenile. Can you persist in this desirable miracle? By twelve more years can you be less numbered?”
“Not by just standing here in the moonlight. But I believe that I can do it if you will wait.” He plunged from the sea wall without debate, pleasing Courtney with the athletic spectacle as he rode over the waves that churned in the near distance. The auburn-haired, lean-faced, steamy virgin peered. She watched as her aged Leander pressing on, not knowing where he went, though he sought Aphrodite. He found her easily as if she had come to meet him, so that she was visible to Courtney, whenever a wave lifted her. The goddess stood in a clam, her lean loins draped modestly in seaweed. Courtney was pleased she didn’t suffered from a lack of modesty. She was quite comfortable flaunting herself shamelessly.
With a similar want of shame, Jeepers seized upon the clam, though intending to make a humble supplication, blurting unceremoniously, “For you I know no age can be mortification.”
“Unhand my clam, or your age will not increase one more minute.”
The deity stood majestic haughty as she admonished Jeepers, who immediately released his grip. But he had the presence of mind to remember his purpose: “I want decrease.”
“I understood the reason for your blandishment. If only I could be flattered without sycophants hoping for some gain. It would be nice even people could just tickle my fancy from time to time, out of affection. I’d like that. Anyway, wretch, fetch me twelve pearls from Erin, the vile but exquisite Goblin Queen. And when you get back don’t touch my clam.” At this command Jeepers trembled and turned green.
“Is there somewhere else I could get you pearls. From Medusa or Hades or some dreadful kraken? But Erin curses and is so horribly abominable. Of course she is exquisite but so vile.”
“There’s lots of places you can get pearls. But I like sending supplicants to places they don’t want to go. I suppose I’m capricious, but that’s just part of my charm. If you would love Courtney, dive and make entreaty,” commanded Aphrodite, and somewhat stern and formidable. Jeepers found her even more awful than he remembered the vile goblin’s hostility. He dived down beneath the frothing foam that bubbled from the remains of Kronos’ scrotum from which Aphrodite had been born, surprised at how sticky it was after thousands of years. He was thankful to reach a depth where the froth was diluted, once he had exerted himself to plummet through the spermy, briny fluid. Miraculously, the deeper he dove, to where the salt water was clean, he found his lungs rudely robust, capacious, and pleasantly airy. Jeepers wondered if this was some spontaneous response of his rejuvenated body to the surly manner of Aphrodite; or had she already engineered her reversal of his years in anticipation of Erin’s pearls. But capacious as his lungs may have become, he nearly gasped out all his breath. For through the watery green the goblin queen glared, her mouth shaped into a nasty smile, that made Jeepers shudder. Her grin broadened as she flicked her tongue, holding out twelve pearls for him if he dared to take them.
It was hard to speak through the bubbles; but there was no other course to take; no doubt the goblin fiend would add some further condition in return for the gift of the gems. But at least he would have one night of bliss with Courtney to remember and to soothe him in the lamentable aeons that reached out when he would be enchained to the the abominable monarch. For now, he must not lose another moment, but hurry back to the rock pool, to his beloved Courtney. Jeepers burbled words in gagged mumbles, sure he would drown even though he wouldn’t, entreating Erin for the prize. “Gracious Goblin, give me the gems and name your price.”
She mulled upon some harsh caprice, some whim to which she was indifferent but which would cause Jeepers to suffer despair. “When Courtney is done with you, old goon do not forget your contract to return here, return through Kronos’ foetid semen. You’ll be surprised that it is so soon; how short your night of bliss will be. But I would also have it that you will be happy to serve as my lackey merman.” The wicked whim was a frightful curse. Jeepers knew he could not be happy as any goblin’s lackey merman when he was sustained by memories of Courtney. His mind clouded, confused as he took the pearls and placed them in a purse Aphrodite had placed about his neck, secured on a string of sapphires. “Remember one thing: before you return to me, you will have forgotten your feathery siren. I would not have you troubled by happy reminiscences you can never regain.” Her farewell smile parodied goodwill.
Shattered by Erin’s dooming decree, Jeepers swam up through spunky green. Dazed and despairing, he found the goddess waiting in the clam. “These pearls have a goblin sheen. Doubtless, the beastly Erin took them from oysters she had befouled.” So saying, she tipped the gems into her palm and threw them over her shoulder to sink back down to the sea-floor. “But give these sapphires to your sweetheart. The necklace, tell her, will stop feathers sprouting. Now be off. Regale in your fleeting, unnatural youth.” Aphrodite’s unexpected generosity took Jeepers as much by surprise as had Erin’s cold, cruel whimsy. For the moment, putting the hopelessness before him to one side, he hastened back to Courtney. Unlike Leander, Jeepers found his shore, arriving vital, virile, a youthful paramour.
Courtney, standing tall on her wall, saw him churned on a turning wave, surrounded by tufts of feathers she had heaved into the waves that left her shore. Though churned, she saw that Jeepers was buoyant in the surf. She was astounded at the codger’s natant facility, inwardly cheering and cajoling him towards her. She was sure the gods were entangled in her affair. Some miracle was afoot for her knave; but she also guessed there must be a curse to complement it.
But it was not the time for misgivings. She decked herself to look more sweet, imitating Aphrodite in draping seaweed about her person. She knew that Aphrodite was always abreast of fashion; if Courtney had a clam shell to stand in, she would be in vogue. She made a last, earnest search for sprouting feathers as Jeepers hailed her at a cable’s length and added other adornments, so that she was at her finest for him, ornamented with seaweed, seashells and driftwood. She struggled to undo anxious mood as he stood upright and strode towards her.
He was on the wall in a reckless, easy spring, the very sort of vault Courtney habitually disdained as a boastful demonstration intend to attract admiration. However, this was the first such vault obviously intended to attract her admiration; and as it was rather well done, she felt chuffed. As Jeepers reached her, he put a string of sapphires over her head and rested them gently on her shoulders and breast. “These are a gift from Aphrodite,” he told her. “I don’t understand why, but she said they prevent feathering. Anyway, they match the blue of your eyes.”
Of course, Courtney was miffed at the mention of feathers; but as she had been flattered by Jeepers’ demonstrative leap; pleased by the gift of the elegant necklace; and warmly touched by her paramour’s appreciation of her eyes, though they were green. So she restrained her sense of pique. If any blame was to be apportioned regarding mention of feathers, it would go to Aphrodite on this occasion. But if the sapphires actually did prevent feathering, Courtney saw she could well have a debt of gratitude to the goddess. She might send her an amphora of oysters.
Giving her attention to Jeepers she saw he was the very sort of robust lout she had always wanted, a far cry from the clever but misshapen Hephaestus that Melpomene would have her wed. But Jeepers had shed the last dozen years that stood between him and a callow, mindless, lascivious stripling; eyeing him lasciviously, Courtney wallowed in prurient jubilation. She was also proud that no hairy tufts stirred beneath her hide, that none would burst forth to humiliate her as Jeepers caressed the small of her back or engaged in even more intimate liberties to which she hoped to surrender. The sapphire necklace had already proved itself efficacious. This eventful night was truly a happy one for Courtney. She asked Jeepers, “Am I the Hero for whom you braved the perils of the sea and the mood of a capricious goddess.”
“I doubt I would have been half so brave for any other,” Jeepers told her with a sincerity more mature than his youthful looks. But though he wanted to mean the words he said, Jeepers’ mind was oblivious and blank, as if Lethe had cast a pall over all the years he had lived, as if he had never been old. All that drove him now was his salient, almost rank, libido, malodorous as the sea that surged around Aphrodite’s clam, wherever it drifted.
Their union was brief, torrid and rough; though it delighted Courtney it was a delight that filled her with a sense of unworthiness. It was not the gossamer dream she had imagined. As he slumbered she tested him for wakefulness with a cough. But she had drained him. She fled, to face the censure of Melpomene and perhaps even the uxorious attentions of Hephaestus. She didn’t look back at the prostrate, oblivious Jeepers, leaving him to an eternity as the spiteful Erin’s merman lackey.