“They Sing the Horizon” by Matt Cresswell from Glitterwolf: Halloween (October, 2014). Edited by Matt Cresswell.

This story would have been perfect for Touch of the Sea. It also—and here let me apologize, because what I’m about to reference is one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read—reminded me of The Giver.

Jonah lives near the sea. He feels the pull of its tides, hears its song in his ears, and dreams of Tidelings crawling up the beach toward his bedroom window. Not everyone experiences this, and those who do—and are found out—are grossly mistreated by society. Understandably, Jonah’s mother and father are frightened for him, but they let that fear cloud their thinking. Instead of seeing their child for the person he is and questioning the rules of their society, they first tell him that the song isn’t real, and then that not every one can hear it, and finally instruct him to lie and say he doesn’t hear it. To please them, he tries to put all thoughts of Tidelings out of his mind. When he fails, he pretends otherwise.

I embarked on the caretaking of my grand illusion with great passion, and gradually the gaps between my mother’s warnings of the Tidelings grew wider.

Jonah keeps hearing the song and dreaming about the strange figures. Then one day he looks out his window and sees a boy on the beach. It’s his true beginning and also the end of life as he knew it, because of the reality of his world. The choice he makes, to go out to the beach and be known as someone who hears the song of the sea, requires an enormous sacrifice. People who hear it are treated as criminals just for hearing it. They’re condemned for existing as they were created. With men convicted of actual wrongdoing (robbery, murder) they are put into oarless boats and shoved out to sea.

So it’s not a cheery story, but the language used to tell it is beautiful and I was engaged right up to the depiction of the Tidelings as female. After that, I was confused. I know the sea is often thought of as female, as are sirens, but why are they female in this story? Unlike the true criminals, who do succumb to the creatures and are pulled under the waves, the boys are able to resist. I assumed the others were sent to sea for the very real crimes they committed, not because they heard the Tideling’s song. But could it be that they heard it, and it inspired them to commit those crimes? Jonah and the boy from the beach, Tobias, didn’t commit any true crimes and are not pulled under by the creatures, so why did they hear their song in the first place?

Is it that Jonah just interprets the Tidelings as female because they are terrifying creatures and his basis for what is truly terrifying is his mother, who was supposed to be loving and nurturing but wasn’t? (When he’s discovered on the beach with Tobias she rejects him for it.) Does he see the monsters as female because of her? That would make sense. But then I’m an Atheist, and as such I subscribe to the notion that humankind creates gods, not vice versa.

It would make more sense to me if they heard the song of male Tidelings, and the simple fact of being able to hear them resulted in their being condemned and sent forth. But that still wouldn’t explain being called by the song and able to resist at the last possible moment.

Or is it that he would have gone the way of the others, were it not for his mother’s actions? Here I’m thinking not of sexuality but of dogma. Does the sea represent, say, Christianity? Is the song really faith, destroyed by the cruel actions of the weak and frightened within the ranks of organized religion? But then what of the criminals?

You can try to make the case that the ending is somewhat hopeful, but it’s a pretty specious argument. Jonah and Tobias may survive their ordeal, but look at the price they will have paid. They’ve been cast out from their families and the only world they’ve ever known, for no reason at all. It’s a stark, tragic and, sadly, all-too-familiar story.