Niki wipes sticky blood off her cheek.
She stops mid-step, perplexed by the quickly browning russet substance on her fingers. Maybe something fell from the sky—paint, perhaps. There’s scaffolding a few blocks back, workers renovating a hotel’s facade, so desperate to hide the old soul of buildings under the lacquered veil of modernity. Niki walks toward one of the few lampposts still lit along the seaside promenade, its yellow light locked in a losing battle with the morning mist.
She raises her smeared fingers to the light and feels—
No. This is not the time for her to be feeling or wondering or, worse, remembering. Not when it’s almost 5:30 a.m., and she’s going to be late for work. Desperate to distract her, I offer her the song. Just the first four notes, of course, and no words. She can’t handle more, anyway.
Sol la, sol la… This should be enough for her to focus on.
I sit back, watching the song take hold. It always does.
Niki smiles, dazed, and wipes her hand on her black jeans. Humming the four notes over and over again, she crosses the portside avenue and heads to the oblong expanse of Aristotelous Square, the sea a stirring gray slate behind her. This is the city’s in-between time, when the souvlaki and fast-food joints have just closed and the cafés are not yet open. A briny, booze-scented limbo when the night’s heaviest partygoers are either sleeping it off on one of the square’s benches or headed home on wobbly feet.
Niki usually loves this time of day, strutting leisurely through Aristotelous Square, feeling like she owns the place. Feeling like she owns everything. But today, something is different. Hands in her jeans pockets, shoulders slouched, Niki crosses the square as quickly as possible.
It’s not that she’s afraid some drunken fool will go for her. In her gray hoodie and her baggy pants, with her black hair hidden under her hood, she’s a far cry from the always polished, always perfectly made-up women who grace Thessaloniki’s streets.
There’s nothing shiny about Niki in the mornings.
Still, unease blooms in her chest—as if there is a predator around, just out of sight.
As if she can smell the possibility of violence.
It’s a tangy, metallic scent, but it grows fainter with every hastened step. By the time she reaches the end of the square and takes a right to Karolou Ntil and then another sharp right to Proxenou Koromila, where the entrance to the bakery is, the scent is gone. Niki removes her keycard from her back pocket and lets herself into the kitchen, still humming: sol la, sol la.
• • •
The man’s golden hair glistens like sunlight in shallow waters.
Niki can’t stop staring at him. The way his loose waves catch the overhead lights like a halo around his tan face… She’s seen hair like that, hasn’t she? Recently… or not so recently.
Lost in the murky foam of redacted memories, Niki over-pours the man’s drink, spilling hazelnut-scented iced coffee all over her hands.
“Shit,” she says, transferring the mess over the sink to clean it up. The man gives her a disarming smile, as if he’s used to baristas being distracted by his looks and messing up his order. Maybe he is. Maybe he’s one of those social media influencers or tastemakers or whatever the current nomenclature is, and he’s going to sic his followers on her.
Or, worse, give Tsoureki and Chill a bad review on Yelp.
“So sorry, I’ll make you another one right away,” Niki says hurriedly. “Would you like a slice of chocolate tsoureki while you wait? It’s on the house.” She gives him her sweetest smile.
Niki can be shiny at noon. When I need her to be.
“Depends,” the man says, his voice like long-forgotten lightning. “Is it any good?”
“Of course it is! Our recipe is the oldest one in the city—plus, I baked this one myself.”
The man accepts his peace offering like a petulant king. When Niki hands him the paper plate with the tsoureki slice, their fingers almost touch. She has the strangest sudden urge to step around the counter and press her fingers into his skin, his hair, touch and hold and cherish—
Sol la, sol la…
The song bursts through the dam of Niki’s mind. She blinks. What was she doing? Ah, yes, making him a new coffee. The man finishes eating, raising a quizzical eyebrow at her. She quickly pours his drink into a takeaway cup and hands it over, careful to avoid contact this time. The man leaves, mumbling something in a language she doesn’t know.
Niki keeps humming the two repeating notes, sol la, sol la, like her life depends on it.
• • •
By the time her shift ends, Niki is bone-tired.
She picks up a salad from the health food bar next to Tsoureki and Chill and finds herself walking back down to Nikis Avenue almost in a trance, her sneakers dragging on the hot concrete. Her face feels like a melted mask after a day of smiling, asking people if they’d like a side of tsoureki with their order, and smiling again. Her hair hurts from being trapped in a hairnet and tucked under the corporate polo hat all day long. She runs a hand through it now, taking a deep breath. The smells of roasted coffee beans, mastic, and mahlepi still linger in her nostrils, but the closer she gets to the sea, the more another scent replaces them.
It’s ancient and sharp and tangy, and it scratches behind the barrier of sol la, sol la.
Niki sits on a wooden bench overlooking the waters. She absentmindedly stabs at her salad with a plastic fork, forgetting to bring food to her mouth. That golden hair… Didn’t her brother have hair like that? Niki is trying to picture his face, but all she gets are flashes of white cloth and clanging steel, bloodied skies and broken screams. An endless sadness, washing over her like waves against an empty shore. Walking alone in a city with no name. And underneath it all, that wretched sound, these two repeating notes that never turn into a song. Incomplete—like her.
A group of tourists steps between her and the waves, taking pictures of the promenade, twisting their torsos so that they can also get the White Tower in the frame. Niki huffs and gets up, looking for the nearest bin to throw away the salad she didn’t eat. More people join the group, among them a tour guide who is explaining the legend behind the city’s name while the rest record him on their phones. The modern way of listening. There’s always tourist groups around this time in the afternoon, especially from May onward, when the faint promise of Mediterranean heat lures them from their respective corners of the world, like fish gravitating toward warm water. Niki wonders if the man from earlier is in one of those groups—although for some reason, she’s sure he would be a guide, not a follower.
She sticks around for a second, humming sol la, sol la.
“Greece’s co-capital, colloquially known as ‘The Bride of the Gulf’ for its prized proximity to the Thermaic Gulf, Thessaloniki was named after Alexander the Great’s sister. King Philip of Macedon had just won a significant battle in Thessaly, so when his daughter was born on the same day, he named her Thessalonike, which means ‘Thessalian victory,’” the tour guide says. “Thessalonike and Alexander were half-siblings, but according to myth, they loved each other very much. So much so that when Alexander allegedly found the Fountain of Immortality, instead of drinking its waters himself, he used them to wash his sister’s hair instead, thus rendering her immortal…”
Niki rolls her eyes. She’s heard that variation of the myth countless times—every tour guide has their own preferred version, all distorted by time’s tides like rocks left at the mercy of the ocean spray for too long, encrusted with salt and clothed in moss until their oldest, truest form is impossible to glean. But this story had a true form once, although Niki isn’t entirely sure how she knows that. Her memory has been a weird, writhing thing lately, all quicksand where there should be solid ground. She throws her salad into a bin nearby, but then she considers the seagulls that frequent the promenade and fishes it out again, opening the lid and leaving it by the bin’s rim. That way, the birds can get to it if they’re hungry.
Wild things need to eat, too, after all.
The tourists are being loud now, all “ooh”s and “aah”s, but Niki isn’t close enough to hear what their guide is saying. She takes a reluctant step toward the group.
“…who passes judgment on mariners throughout the centuries, across the seven seas,” the tour guide concludes. “Now, about the history of the White Tower, which we’re visiting next…”
There’s a storm brewing inside Niki’s throat, one she doesn’t understand.
She turns around, leaving the group behind, the two notes in her mind now coming fast and jagged—sol la, sol la—like the blare of a foghorn warning a ship of jagged shores ahead.
She walks all the way to the point where the seaside promenade gives way to the port, then stops for a moment to look at all these boats littering the ocean with their exhaust. Niki is angry, and it’s still too early in the evening for her to be angry, what with the sun barely kissing the waters in the horizon. To placate her, I give her the next bit of the song.
She’s sharper now; she can take it.
Sol la, sol la, sol mi… Niki hums that tune all the way home, the setting sun painting the city behind her the same shade of gold as that man’s hair from earlier, as her own shadow.
• • •
Niki never knows what brings her to the edge of the promenade at night.
All she knows is that she’s here, and she’s humming sol la, sol la, sol mi while taking off her clothes and placing them carefully on the steps that lead to the dark waters of the gulf. When she takes her first step into the water, she’s not worried about pollution or infections, about someone seeing her naked, swimming where she’s not supposed to, and calling the police.
Niki is not worried about anything anymore because, as long as we’re in the waters, Niki doesn’t exist. I’m leaving her behind like yet another of my dresses, her squeaky-clean corners carefully folded over those infernal jeans she so prefers.
This is my time. This is my song.
My hair, finally free from nets and hats, rises in raven rivulets that reflect the moonlight. Not exactly snakes, although many an imaginative artist has drawn me like that in the few rare occasions I’ve allowed them to witness me and continue breathing.
I open my arms wide and dive into the muddy waters headfirst, the skin of my cheeks parting near my ears to allow precious oxygen in, my useless legs melding back into my tail. My body thrums with power in this, my true form. Bioluminescence makes my skin glimmer, its golden glow illuminating the path ahead. The seabed of the Thermaic Gulf is littered with soda cans and cigarette butts, but I don’t have time to rage against humanity’s utter disrespect for nature.
Not when I haven’t eaten all day.
I swim farther and farther away from the shore, where I’m likely to find fresh prey.
I feel them before I see them. The devastation in the waters caused by their weighed nets. Their destructive dragging of the sea floor, trapping everything from trash to baby fish.
My teeth sharpen, as does my fury.
Niki would tell me that what they’re doing is not illegal, that bottom trawling is only prohibited in these waters from June to September. That technically, it’s not June yet.
This is not the time for Niki.
I cut the net with my sharp claws and lift it so that anything left alive inside of it can escape. Then I follow the thread of destruction back to its perpetrators: a small, loud boat spewing exhaust into my gulf.
I’m going to enjoy this.
I rise up from the waters like Amphitrite’s wrath and grab the boat’s starboard side. The men gasp as they see me, but I don’t allow them time to react. I unleash my song on them, notes coming together to form the only question I’ll ever ask them—the same question I always ask.
They look at me, bewildered. I smile with all my sharp teeth. Last time a sailor knew the right response to my song, last time anyone was wise enough to respond to my burning question about my brother with the appropriate assurances that he’s still alive and still rules the world, was about a century ago. Men don’t bother with ancient superstition about mermaids these days.
Which is just as well. I would have to let them live if they’d answered correctly.
And I’m so very hungry.
I sing again, the notes hitting the hull of their boat like bullets, water erupting within the small confines of their perceived refuge. No one can find refuge from me in my gulf. As they frantically squirm to plug the holes, I reach out and grab the first of them.
My teeth are already snapping at his neck as we go down together.
• • •
Niki always takes some time to reappear after I’ve fed.
I’m back in her silly little human form, back in those silly little human clothes, wiping my face clean. I need to be more diligent about cleaning up the mess afterward. I don’t want her to keep noticing it. It upsets her—and the only reason Niki exists in the first place is so that we don’t have to drown in the depth of our feelings all the time. It can become exhausting after the first thousand years or so.
To be human is to be able to forget. At least for a blessed little while.
I climb up the four steps that mark the flimsy barrier between water and dry land and stand on the old seaside promenade of my city. A few cars fly by Nikis Avenue. Some humans honk. I resist the temptation to attack again; we don’t do that in this form. I can feel Niki rising within me: her uncertainty, her fear, her… humanity. I sigh.
Perhaps it’s time to give in, let her retake control. I’ve had my fun.
I turn around to take a last look at my city while I still remember that it’s mine—and then I see him. Leaning against a lamppost, blond hair making the moonlight look pallid, with a smile that could sink a thousand ships. The man who made Niki so flustered earlier today.
He looked at her as if he knew her—and now he looks at me as if he knows me.
My heart bursts into a billion songs and I run, and Niki runs, and we both run to him.
I hug him with such ferocity that the lamppost almost caves in, but I don’t care. He laughs.
I soak his T-shirt with enough tears to flood the seven seas, tears and blood and time all unraveling, unraveling, unraveled, because Alexander is once again safe in my arms.
“You have fish breath, big sister,” he says. “We need to do something about your diet.”
Then he stays silent until I’ve stopped crying. He strokes my hair like he used to do when we were kids, back in the courtyard of our palace when we thought we had a long, brilliant future ahead of us. Looks like we were right on one count, at least.
“I’m sorry, Thessalonike,” he says, and my full name blooms like a flower that hasn’t seen sunlight in two thousand years. “I wanted us to be gods. But when I died, everything I’d built crumbled so fast… I woke up in a world I didn’t recognize, sad, angry. My family killed, my empire up for grabs… It was easier to forget, to switch it all off. Most of the time, I hardly remembered who I was myself. And then I saw you.”
I take a step back to drink in his presence like another cup of that immortal water.
I have so many things to ask him. About drinking that water without telling me, about going on his ill-fated journey to rule the world, about his famous death and his empty tomb that has enchanted and perplexed so many.
But as I look into his amber eyes, none of these questions matter.
Instead, I say, “Will you stay?”
My little brother, Alexander the Great, offers me his arm in lieu of a response.
I take it, and we disappear into the wide streets of my city, two shiny siblings from a different era, determined to never dim our light again, neither on land nor at sea.