Mud Sirens by Laura Valenza

I hadn’t meant to stay at the library until closing. But there I was on the front verandah of the villa, the librarian waving to me through the window as she locked the door. I saw her walk to her car out back and call “Buona sera!”

I could have sworn other students had been there with me, but they were suddenly gone. I thought I saw their cellphone lights in the distant darkness, but when I called out to them, nobody responded. The lights bobbed away. Beyond the glow of the villa light tides of darkness lapped at the stairs. The glow dissipated down the stairs and into the gorge. On the other side of the gorge, I could see the glowing lights of the other villa where dinner and my dormitory waited. I walked away from the library but hesitated at the top of the approximately thirty stairs leading to the bottom of the gorge like the antithesis of scale sante, holy stairs. In daylight, this place was magic—sixty acres of silvery olive trees alive with myth and tradition. But at night I couldn’t see any of that. No moon or stars shone. I suddenly couldn’t remember if there were lights at the bottom. I convinced myself they were motion-activated and started to descend.

If the lights existed at all, they were not motion-activated. Irritation washed over my fear. Why do women have to be afraid of the dark like children? I flipped open my phone and texted, “Coming home from library, if I’m not at dinner in ten, you know.” But my roommate always walked ten yards in front or behind me, not with me—even after dark—so I had little faith in her rescue. Far off on distant hills on the other side of Florence’s valley, I saw the dim orange light of a bonfire simpering in the oncoming rain like a dying sun. The moon illuminated a whirling pool of smoke as if watery clouds and fiery olive branches could be each other’s cause and effect. Then, the moon disappeared into deep clouds again.

I stepped into the dark never letting my eyes lose sight of the dining hall glow. I had never experienced such darkness, my instincts railed. My mother had told me before I left to pursue my big-city-world-traveler-cosmopolitan adventures if I ever found myself alone, I had made a wrong turn. My feet tripped over the steep incline. Rain chilled me through my rubber boots and trench coat. I remembered the stories we had told in sunlight earlier as we lay in soft grass and made tiaras out of daisies. My roommate wouldn’t tell me what she and her friends had been talking about.

“Tell me please,” I had begged.

“You don’t want to know.”

“Now you have to tell me.”

“It will scare you.”

“I’ll just look it up.”

So, she told me about the Monster of Florence who murdered dozens of people in the hills like these. He sneaked up on couples in parked cars, slaughtered them, and mutilated the women. He had never been caught and periodically the murders would start again.

When she finished the story, I said, “I wish you hadn’t told me.”

Now I was alone in the dark, and grasses as tall as me rattled louder than my rain boots’ slurping steps. If I got murdered, my mother would kill me because she didn’t raise me to be stupid, she raised me to be paranoid.

“Alice?” I called to the grass. “Here, kitty.”

In daylight and especially at dusk, the gorge reminded me of the Garden of the Hesperides because of the silvery olive trees. But now I couldn’t see the trees, and I felt a trespasser in a myth not belonging to me.

I called for Federico and Fiona, my pheasant friends whom Renzo, the teaching assistant, told me he would kill and eat. I pretended I was swimming in the Lago Nero, the Black Lake up in the mountains. A cab driver had told me about this lake so deep and so dark. He said it once crushed dams and spilled over Florence, but I never knew if such stories were true or games between old men and young tourists.

I nearly ran into a man as he emerged from the shadows. I screamed picturing mutilation, picturing my barely breathing body-to-corpse sinking into the Black Lake never to resurface until the next flood. The man turned as if in a ghostly stupor.

“Oh, Renzo! Thank goodness!”

“Where is she?” he asked, looking through me.

“Who?” I said.

“The silvery girl,” he said, pushing me aside. “I whistled at her while I was out smoking.”

“Take me back to the villa,” I said.

“No.” He pushed me away languidly as if with a breaststroke. “She said we could meet at this cool grotto in the garden.”

When he didn’t see her anywhere, he finally turned his attention to me. He felt me clinging to his hand and decided my fear was funny. He shook his arm away from me with palpable disdain. He ran away and wouldn’t turn back. I called after him until the Black Lake darkness had taken him. Or it had taken me.

Then I saw her. Renzo’s lady. I choked a little, water filled my mouth. Not a lady at all, and certainly not Renzo’s.

Iridescent as sun on water, she also glowed internally like a fish from the abyss. She appeared as a slender, vaguely female figure who stood in a gangly, unsteady way as if every gust of wind and drop of rain flowed through her or even with her. She was so filmy, I could almost peer through her, but she seemed to control the field of vision beyond her. I no longer saw darkness, but dinner and dryness and light and my fellow coeds whom I had so struggled to bond with and now longed for.

Her light guided me out of the gorge and back home. I tried to talk to her, but she only gurgled. The rain seemed to follow her. Her ethereal feet dissipated like puddles.

When I entered the dormitory’s grounds, my whole body ached and inhaled gratefully as if my rescuer and I had swum out of the gorge. No one believed my fear in the darkness, but no one believed Renzo either who had staggered in after receiving a nasty cut on his forehead from a rock. I wasn’t going to admit I too saw the silvery being. I watched Renzo flounder in his storytelling, but I would keep my protector’s secret. At least I could rest assured Florence had stronger monsters than men.

Laura Valenza graduated from New York University and is currently working toward her MFA at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her work has appeared in Visual Verse.