Disclaimer: Erik and Christine belong entirely to Susan Kay. And Gaston Leroux. I'm just borrowing them for a while.
Once more I was aware of the sudden blurring of our two worlds, the falling of that soft gauze curtain which obscured the dividing line between fact and fantasy. (...) I was twenty years old, in full possession of my faculties and I knew there were no such things as dragons.
And yet I had only to listen and they would exist in his voice; the dream would become reality the moment I abandoned my disbelief and I would not return to this world until he chose to bring me back.
-Susan Kay, Phantom
The first time Erik suggested that we leave the house, I was quite certain that I hadn't heard him properly. I blinked at him like a stupid child, but he calmly repeated himself for me:
"This evening, I should like to take you outside."
By this time I had recovered my faculties enough to speak. "Take me outside? What for?"
A melodious chuckle escaped his lips, and his eyes shone with a gentle light. "Why, for a row on the lake, of course. You seem restless, Christine, and a bit of air might do you good."
I was unable to disguise my expression of astonishment, though I could not have said whether I was more surprised at his wanting to take me out, or at the fact that he had said "outside" when he was merely referring to the lake. Nevertheless, I gave my consent, and it seemed to please him.
When the hour arrived he gave three knocks on the door to my room, and I presented myself, ready and almost eager for this new adventure.
"I advise you to bring your shawl and gloves," he said as he studied me. "I do not wish you to take a chill on the water."
"Of course," I said, and retrieved the items at once. I saw that he was dressed in his cloak and hat, and reflected that perhaps even he was not immune to the frigid temperature of the cellars.
He stood aside, ever the gentleman, to let me pass out of the room. Escorting me out of the house and down toward the lake, he then indicated the boat with an elegant gesture of his long fingers. Out of unconscious habit more than anything else, I waited for him to extend a hand to steady me as I climbed into the boat – but it only took a moment for me to realize that he would not do it.
Giving him a nod that I hoped was pleasant enough, I sat down inside the boat of my own accord, and as he climbed in to sit opposite me, I hastily put on my gloves and wrapped my shawl around my shoulders. It was, as he'd insinuated, more than a little cold on the water.
As he took up the oars and began to row, I regarded the stagnant water beneath us. I had seen these waters many times, of course, but never before had I been in the boat without the express purpose of going somewhere: either to or from Erik's house. But now, when he had put me in the boat simply to row for his own amusement, I did not think of where I was coming from or going to. I thought only of the strange, murky water that carried the boat, and wondered how deep it might be – for I had never learned to swim.
Erik, seeming to sense my discomfort, spoke in a voice filled with reassurance. "You needn't fear for your safety," he said. "The boat is quite sturdy."
Somewhat embarrassed that he had read me so easily, I replied, "I've no doubt of that." And it was true, for he had once told me that he'd built it himself.
He tilted his head thoughtfully to one side. "We would only have a problem," he mused, looking somewhere just beyond my face, "if there were mermaids in the lake. Mermaids are curious creatures, Christine, and not at all trustworthy. They amuse themselves by tipping the boats of those who don't believe they exist. Did you know that?"
As he spoke, I found myself wondering what in the world I would do if we did happen upon a mermaid. A small part of my brain tried valiantly to tell me that mermaids were the stuff of fairy stories, that they simply weren't real; but the greater part, which was held in thrall by the inexplicable power of Erik's voice, was already imagining these strange and beautiful beings in frighteningly vivid detail. I peered nervously into the dark water as I replied, "No, I didn't know."
We passed quietly under an arch and into a different part of the lake, further away than I had ever been from either the shore on the Rue Scribe side, or the door to Erik's house. "I did find a mermaid here once," he said suddenly, and this time his eyes fixed on me as he spoke.
"Did you really?" I asked, silencing the part of me that insisted the story couldn't be true. I didn't care whether or not the story was true; I just wanted to hear the rest of it.
"I did," he affirmed. "She was a beautiful thing, though not so beautiful as you, Christine, for she had webs in her hands and seaweed in her hair." I felt myself blush under his gaze, but if he noticed, he did not let on. "She'd found her way in somehow, but was going quite mad trying to find her way out again! Oh, she made quite a racket, splashing about as she did."
"What did you do?" I asked breathlessly.
He laughed amiably at my question, as though I should have known the answer already. "I showed her the way out, of course. I had quite a time calming her enough that she would listen to me – but once I'd succeeded, she proved a most intelligent and sensible creature. Before she left, she even gave me a gift for my trouble."
"A gift?" I repeated, bemused. "What sort of gift?" I tried to imagine what gift a mermaid could possibly give to a man such as Erik, and I then wondered why he had never shown it to me...
"She gave me a song," he said. "Mermaids have wondrous voices, you know. Eerie and haunting... very strange. But not at all beautiful." He paused, as if considering his words. "But then, she did not seem to think much of my voice either. Perhaps human voices do not resonate well in mermaids' ears."
I was silent for a moment, at once trying to figure out how a mermaid's voice might sound, and wondering what sort of creature could possibly not find Erik's voice beautiful. Mermaids, I concluded, were stranger creatures than I'd ever imagined. "What became of her?" I asked.
"She left," he told me almost sadly. "She missed the ocean terribly, and she was in a hurry to return. I suppose she's found her way back by now..."
A wave of nostalgia rose within me, though for what I did not know. I had been to the seaside with my father, of course, but I felt no particular attachment to the place. Nevertheless, I could not quell my sudden sadness, and I let out a sigh.
Erik did not speak, instead leaving me to my own thoughts, but the echoes of his voice kept me safely inside the fantasy he had painted.
It was only another moment, though, before I realized that it wasn't mere echoes that I was hearing – it was another voice entirely! A woman's voice, to judge from its high pitch, with a crystal tone that reached my ears with such lovely softness that I could not help but look around to see where its owner might be.
When I saw nobody, I looked back at Erik with the intention of asking him about the voice. But before I could, he raised one thin finger to his lips, in a silent entreaty for me not to speak. I regarded him curiously, wondering at the gesture, but instinct told me to obey him. So I resumed my self-appointed task of searching for the owner of the voice.
Upon listening more closely, I found that the voice seemed to originate not from any one specific place, but from the water itself! Which part of the water, though, I could not determine. I leaned as far as I dared over the side of the boat, trying to see into the depths below. As I looked, I fancied that I saw something shimmer beneath the surface, but I could not tell whether it was my own imagination, or something else entirely.
Another shimmer, perhaps real and perhaps not, caught my eye, and I smiled down at it. Surely another mermaid could find her way beneath the Opéra just as easily as the first? She might be swimming beneath me at that very moment, and I would be in no danger so long as I believed...
"You are quite wrong," I whispered to Erik with a secretive smile. "Mermaids do have beautiful voices!"
He shook his head at me, and I suddenly recalled that he had asked me to remain quiet. I brought my fingers to my lips as though to prevent any more words from escaping; but even as I did so, the song ended just as suddenly and mysteriously as it had begun.
"That was not a mermaid, Christine," said Erik in a voice just as soft as the woman's had been. "That was the siren."
"The siren!" I repeated in quiet alarm, for I knew about sirens. They were dangerous and powerful, much more powerful than mermaids. Whereas Erik had said that mermaids merely tipped boats for their own pleasure, sirens were known to capture their prey using magic... and worse.
"Yes," said Erik mildly, "though you have nothing to fear from her, I assure you. She has been told not to harm you."
Nevertheless, a bolt of irrational fear shot through me. "But what if she should forget, or mistake me for someone else?" I asked nervously.
"She won't," said Erik, and there was such certainty in his voice that I believed him.
Relaxing a little, I asked him, "Will she sing again?"
He looked at me for a moment and said, "Perhaps, if you are quiet. She only sings when she knows that someone will listen."
"Ah," I said. "Is that why she stopped before? Because I spoke to you?"
"I would imagine so," he said, and I detected a hint of amusement in his voice.
"Then I shan't speak again," I resolved. "And perhaps she'll sing."
Erik nodded as he continued to move the oars slowly through the water. For a few minutes both of us sat absolutely still inside the boat, waiting... and then the voice began singing again.
This time it seemed to come from not just the water, but the very air around us. I closed my eyes, letting the siren enchant me as she pleased, simply enjoying the heavenly sound and remembering Erik's promise that she would not harm me. The sound vibrated around me, filling my senses with peace and light. It was a blissful feeling that I had known only once before: when the Angel of Music had sung to me in my dressing-room.
With the recollection of those days, the time before Erik had brought me down to the house on the lake, a sudden inkling of a suspicion began to form in my mind. Slowly, so as not to disturb Erik, I opened my eyes again.
From what I could see of his lips beneath the mask, they were closed and, as I'd expected, not moving at all. But sure enough, when I looked at his throat I could see him breathe in time with the siren's song.
Strangely enough, though, I did not feel cheated upon learning of his ingenious little trick. Nor did I tell him that I knew it was he who sang – for even though I was now aware that the sound came from Erik's throat, there was a part of me that still believed that it was a siren's voice.
We rowed in silence for a while longer, listening to the song and its echoes until Erik moored the boat by his house once again. He held it steady as I climbed out, and then he followed me onto the shore. I made as though to go inside, but he stopped me with a simple movement of his hand. He raised his chin just a little, as though listening intently to the mysterious voice, and I did the same.
As I listened, the siren ended her song of her own accord. The last note faded into the dark waters of the lake, and I turned my eyes toward Erik. He looked back at me, but we now stood in shadow and I could not tell what his expression might have been beneath the mask.
A tense moment passed. I could feel his eyes upon me, waiting, and I knew that I was meant to speak first.
"Shall we visit her again soon?" I asked tentatively.
He gave me a slow, graceful nod of his head, and in the darkness I swore that I could see his lips twist into a genuine smile.
"Yes," he said. "I think she would like that."