Suelo › The Siren

‘Mis Ane Bishop la Sirena de Albion’
El Comercio, Lima, Peru, 31st October 1857

Days and days at sea—with silence in her head and silence all around her as far as she can see. She sits on deck looking out at the water, feeling the anxiety of it pricking her eyelids and making her fingers fidget. Sometimes, she doesn’t move from her chair for hours. Staring out at the salty water, week after week, is to see the parameters of her life dissolve. Yet something inside her feels conflicted, rebellious.

It is a relief to come out on deck that final morning of the voyage and be witness to the cacophony. Her fingers grip the handrail; she arches her neck as if she is about to sing. There they are: cawing and whirling. What a noise! As operas go, the self-importance is intense, busy, unforgettable.

She closes her eyes and lets the bird calls fill her senses. When she opens them again, she sees the country of Peru taking shape through the mist.

On her first night in Lima, Anna summons the manager of the theatre to her hotel. She needs a local song, and a local costume. When he objects that Bellini is what the audiences desire—Rossini! Verdi!—Anna assures him that she will run through all the usual arias—Verdi! yes, of course. But just as she sang of Vikings to the scholars of Uppsala University, in Russian to the Tsar, La Catatumba in Mexico, whilst wearing a sombrero, so, in Lima, when she brings the house down, it will be with a Peruvian love song from the hills.

The next day, at the theatre, he presents her with a woman, Maria Phelan, whom he explains, somewhat elaborately, is mestiza, the product of an Indian woman and the Irish overseer of the guano mines near Pisco. Anna doesn’t care where Maria comes from, or how; only that she should arrive with a song. Maria, who is shorter than Anna, darker, with long, black hair that shines, offers her a song from the highlands of Ayacucho; her people brought it down with them when they came to work the mines. Anna learns the Quechua words carefully. Hina ripuchan, hina pasachun chay urpi. Let my pigeon fly; only then will she remember my love. She will pay for my tears, crying like a river, like the rain.

The costume she needs for the Pigeon song is altered by a tailor in a rundown part of town, where the one-storey houses are seemingly made from mud and thatch. Anna senses that this is Maria’s neighbourhood but the woman says nothing; only that her father returned to England a year ago with the firm, and her mother speaks no English. Anna smiles, dumb, as the tailor converses with Maria. The costume is beautiful—it makes her glow.

Turning towards the wings after the Pigeon song which is her encore, Anna sees Maria waiting for her. A face lit with humour; practical and unsentimental. This is what she needs. She decides. By now she has had plenty of servants. She is forty-seven. In her twenties, she toured Europe; crossed America and Australia in her thirties. Before her disgrace, she sang at the coronation of Queen Victoria; after it, for Europe’s royalty. In Naples, where she was prima donna, King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies was her patron. From one end of the world to the other, she has entertained nobles and commoners, ambassadors and bandits.

Maria is twenty-three. How she has escaped marriage, Anna doesn’t know and doesn’t ask.

‘Where will we go?’ Maria asks. That is her only question.

Anna lists the cities. Maria asks the theatre manager for an atlas. He points to the map in the lobby. Maria watches Anna’s finger tracing their journey across the world, to Europe, to England. Her eyebrows rise.

They set off for Chile in December, leaving by boat from the same port where they had docked, a month before. Anna observes Maria, out on deck, watching as her country slides away before her. They cross some tall islands not far from the coast, white with bird shit. ‘The guano,’ Maria says; and later, the captain explains: ‘Where her father works. They bring labourers from China. The Indians won’t do it anymore.’

For one moment, Anna thinks he is referring to the mutiny in India. She laughs when she realises he means the local people of Peru.

The captain says that guano scattered over the vineyards of Pisco is a form of magic. If it works there, think of the new yields it is conjuring from the fields of Devon and East Anglia. Peruvian farmers, he tells Anna, swear that their potatoes never get blight.

It is still dark when Anna wakes the next morning. These days since Maria came, her dreams have been elaborate, fantastical. She feels sweat on her body and the ship’s creak as it lists slightly under the weight of guano. Above her head she hears the beat of powerful wings. Through the mist of sea-salt she sees a bird-woman taking off from Las Islas Chincha. She sees the dark eyes, the black lustrous hair. She is larger, darker, more menacing than the rest. She lifts up from the half-mined island mountain and swoops towards the ship.

‘By a letter received in San Francisco lately by Mr Gray, the music publisher…
we learn that the madame [Anna Bishop]… and her maid, Maria, are safe.’
Louisville Daily Courier, 8th September 1866

As the boat passes the islands, Maria stares them down: those mountains of bird shit, now covered with steps, ladders, horses, carts—and men. Hell isn’t after death as the priest claims—it is here, on earth, in the islands where her brother died.

Four days before Anna Bishop arrived in Lima, Maria celebrated the Day of the Dead. Everything was as normal; and yet it was not. Even as she savoured the sweetness of her mother’s singing—Hina ripuchan, hina pasachun chay urpi—she felt it. A quiver. It was like this: a tingling in her fingers, a restless in her bones. She felt apprehensive. Someone was on the move. Something was about to change.

A year after her father left Lima, the rumour reached them that the blackbirders were operating again. Of the last consignment brought from China, barely half the passengers had survived the sea crossing. Those that made it to the islands never lost the terror. It was there in their eyes, their gait, their voices. Maria’s father has explained it to her many times: the money the British merchants pay for guano make the government very rich. They are kingmakers in this country.

After her father left, she tried to imagine the place where he had gone. He writes her letters, describing the unimaginable luxury of the English: rooms lined with papers in different patterns—leaves, roses, or painted in swirls to look like Italian marble. Edges of tables and bookcases glimmering with gold. Windows hung with embroidered curtains sunlike with gold thread. Arms and legs of tables and chairs carved with vines.

Many men from the mine took local women; but only one set them up in a green painted house with a wooden balcony. Philip doted on his children; everybody said so. Felipe, two years older than Maria, was the one whom their father took everywhere, dressed in the striped waistcoat and black cravat of a trueborn Englishman. They toured the company factories down in Pisco, the firm’s headquarters near the Plaza Mayor in Lima; went out riding through vineyards on fine Chilean horses; sailed over to the islands themselves. The boats were being overloaded—one of them had recently sunk, some hours out of Lima. Felipe waited patiently on the quay, a little apart, watching the bundles of guano being lifted onto the ship, as his father talked with the crew. Suddenly, the pulley snapped.

The boy—

In the darkness of the night, under the brightly lit sky, as the boat sails down the coast, Maria hears the mountains. At first they are whispering, but soon the noise grows. Through the song of the mountains’ many streams, the tumbling, tripping, falling of pebbles on the steep paths, the shrieking of the winds, she hears her brother’s name.

Maria’s fingers grip the rail of the deck.

‘Felipe,’ she cries.

Then she sees the bird. It is a pelican; unmistakable, even in the half-light of dawn, with its black body and huge white beak. She watches its powerful wings beating the air. It is flying away from her through the night, carrying the message ahead of her to England.

The boat’s siren sounds—long, deep; her body shakes. They have left Peru. Her brother’s journey has begun.