The Sirens of Santa Cruz

By Nels Challinor

I think I was on the beach when I first saw them. No, that’s not quite right, because there wasn’t any sand; I stood on solid stone. I remember that the surface was smooth with oblong divots from the incessant beating of the waves. I remember looking at tidepools and taking pictures, but the little critters beneath the water were quick to scram once they saw my shadow. I must have moved this way, from pool to pool, for about an hour. Then my path ended against a wall of jagged boulders. I turned around.

It was around noon; I remember the sun hung directly above my head. The rock formations that I had just crossed looked slick and supple. Forty feet up, opposite the crashing surf, a boardwalk wrapped around the top of a pale yellow cliff. People strolled by occasionally. The cliff ran along the length of the rock until it fell away to a saltwater marsh. There were small holes and caves in the mottled face of the cliff. Further on, between the marsh and the sea, the state beach lay bristling with umbrellas, punctuated here and there with flabby pink bodies. Children danced and splashed in the violent surf, while their parents stood at the water’s edge. It’s funny that men and women both stand with the same nervous pose while watching their children play in the ocean: one hand tucked against the hip, the other held against the forehead for shade, eyes squinting as the sunlight burns bright against the water. I will always remember mom standing this way with her unpainted toes buried in sand. The tide sucked and gurgled around the children, caught up in its own turbulence in this small bay. At the end of the beach, an enormous, inverted “U” of rough stone jutted up from the water. This monument had given the state park its name: Natural Bridges. There were birds-- pelicans and gulls-- at the peak of the bridge.

I remember now why I was there in the first place. I wanted to shoot the bridge. Frank had told me about it after I brought my camera out on the boat for the first time. He had said: “You’ve got to go, man. Walk way out over the rocks and you look back at the thing. Beautiful.” But I looked back from the rocks and all I saw was parking lots and low flying birds and too many people with fluorescent pink beach towels and prepackaged little homemade lunches- peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off in ziplock baggies, each tagged with a childs name. It might have been beautiful if they weren’t there. With them in the shot though, it would have looked like a damn postcard. Like “Greetings from Sunny California!” No, not beautiful at all.

The pictures I took of the tidepools were alright but I don’t think I got anything special. The images were too cliche. Everything’s been done before, I guess. Isn’t that what a photo is anyway? An image of something that’s been done before.

I remember arguing with a prognathic philosophy professor in college who claimed that since cameras mechanically aid our vision-- “like eyeglasses” he said-- by letting us see into the past, photography cannot be considered a representational art form. He was responding to a brief given by me on the first day of class concerning my plans after graduation. That a professor at a UC would be openly condescending considering a student’s dreams or goals should surprise no one, even at the free-love, hippie stronghold buried in the redwoods just North of town. The professor’s argument was just an embellished version of the one that my father presented to me every night during dinner before mom came to my rescue. Citations and rhetoric did little to suppress the flood of emotional diarrhea that the professor’s ultimate point, that photography is not and cannot be art, stirred within me. I dropped the class the next day and eventually left the school but that smug bastard’s pejorative pronunciation of “representational art form” stuck with me. It always irked me that I never went back to set it straight. I never found the air-tight proof of photography’s legitimacy.

I raised the viewfinder of my camera to my eye and, squinting in concentration, looked through the machine. The landscape was just as my eyes had perceived it, albeit a little more restricted. I turned from the beach toward the marsh. A heron plucked at something green in the muck. I snapped a few photos, but I knew I was too far away to get anything good. Wiry eucalyptus trees sprouted up at the edge of a small forest behind the heron. I started walking back the way I had come.

I must have still been holding the viewfinder to my eye because I tripped over a small pool and, in the moment before my eyes registered any movement, I heard the clunk of my camera against the rock. I panicked blindly and rushed to grab it, but it was fine; a small scratch ran along the base. I wasn’t satisfied so I adjusted some of the controls and held the viewfinder to my eye once again.

I remember everything from that point on so clearly: the pale yellow of the cliff, broken at times by tufts of grass; the dark caves like holes in moldy cheese; little sand crabs and flies circling the surface; and somewhere deep in one of the lower caves, two figures moving slightly. My first thought was gulls, but their bodies were too large to be gulls. There was also something unique in their movements, something graceful and familiar. I set the aperture to a higher setting, trying to focus on the back of the cave. Then, as if responding to my efforts, the figures stepped forward.

It was only for a moment, one fraction of a second, that they stood before me: two naked women shining in the sunlight. I mean shining. Shining brighter than the sun overhead. Smooth skin stretched over radiant features; they seemed to emit their own light.

But they weren’t identical. One was taller, with athletic legs and wide hips. Her skin was fair. Her abdominals poked through the flesh of her stomach. Her breasts were foothills on the broad expanse of her chest, which gave way to long, veiny arms. The digits on her hand were also long, her nails unpainted. And her face looked determined and firm, wreathed in golden waves. Her brow naturally furrowed over narrowed blue eyes. She had high cheekbones. Her mouth was pursed under an aquiline nose.

The other was short and plump, tan in complexion. Her ample features suggested impeccable health. Her breasts were large and her nipples were worn from breastfeeding. I remember that neither of them had any piercings or tattoos. Long auburn hair hung in a braid over the tan one’s right shoulder. She had a round face, in which her features sat plainly in the middle, shaded beautifully by creases and dimples. She held her mouth in a playful “o” and her dark eyes were squinting, but her face didn’t look like it was in pain. No, the look was curiosity.

I knew, for some unexplainable reason, that I would not forget these women. Their beauty, their confidence, their mystery would stay with me always. But some segment of my brain reserved a doubt, and so my finger came down upon the shutter button.

Click. And then they were gone.

I ran to the cave where they had previously been but found no trace of life, only pale yellow walls, darkened with shadows.

I walked to my car and drove home, barely conscious of the intersections, the people, the wheel in my hands. When I got back to my loft, I sat in bed for the rest of the day, smoking pot and looking at the picture of the two women.

A few days later, Frank called me and invited me out for a cruise. I took him up on it, as I did most every time he called.

When I arrived at the harbor, I found Katy readying the Mistress Quickly. Her calloused hands worked diligently with the worn halyard. She was in the process of raising the mainsail when I arrived, but the sheet was engaged so the halyard caught about halfway up. She threw a slip knot into the halyard and released the sheet, then she tugged at the knot and continued raising the main. I busied myself with the jib until Frank arrived in his F-150.

Frank finished rigging but we couldn’t go until his friend Dom showed up with some girls. Dom and Frank were slipping towards 40, as was Katy, but not one of the girls they invited to cruise Monterey Bay could have legally rented a car. A few weeks prior to this cruise, I had stayed up all night with Katy, talking about my childhood and shooting long exposures of steel wool on fire. I showed her how you can spin it above your head at the end of a line, sending sparks off 360 degrees. When you photograph it, it looks like you're holding an umbrella made of fire.

Frank and Dom chided me the next time we went out, jeering “How was the cougar? You get clawed?” and making awful “Rawr” noises as they rolled their wrists in my direction. A single word perched on the edge of my tongue. It was a dirty word that I remember my father using: Jailbait. I didn’t say it because seated right next to me in the cockpit were Dom and Frank’s guests for the evening-- two teenyboppers in floral print.

As we sailed out of the harbor, Frank began his obligatory outline of the basics of sailing.

“This is the sheet,” he tugged at the red line and the boat heeled slightly in response, “it controls the position of the main sail and is what powers the boat, generally. There’s a sheet for the jib too. This is the tiller,” he waved the wooden bar in his hand prompting the boat to swerve through the waves, “it’s for steering. Don’t touch this, this is the backstay,” he gave the cord a snap with his finger, “It holds the mast up…”

He continued with his tactile inventory, naming every control onboard and stating its function. The girls watched and listened politely. Katy watched the jib, slowly easing the sheet to adjust to Frank’s chaotic steering. Dom watched the girls. I looked Northwest, toward Natural Bridges, with my camera in hand.

Katy and Frank sailed the boat expertly, in tune to each other, responding to the Mistress’s desires as she slipped through the surf. Every line they pulled, every cleat cleated, every traveler adjusted to serve a singular purpose: speed. They weren't looking at the orange sun breaking the Monterey Bay from Pacific, or the pelicans drifting lazily above, or even the the boat itself. The hull had been patched and sanded to a piebald mess. The lines were frayed. Duct Tape held a depth-meter to the mast. Empty bottles and torn cans littered the cockpit floor. Neither Katy nor Frank thought to repair these glaring blemishes. The boat was fast. They didn’t care about anything else.

“You go out to Natural Bridges?”

“Yeah,” I said, “ ‘s pretty.”

“Told yah.”

“Is it a nude beach?” I asked.

“What? No, it’s for families. You get naked or something?” He regarded me with a suspicious squint.

“No, just something I saw. Two girls.”

“Hmph. Hippie chicks. Probably walked over from Privates Beach. You get a picture?” He gestured to my camera. I’m pretty sure he was joking but I gave a coy smile and nodded.

“Well c’mon then. Don’t hold out.”

I looked through my camera’s gallery until I found the two women, still beautiful even in the grainy image on screen. I handed Frank the camera.

“What’s this?” he asked, disappointed.

I took the camera back. “It’s the girls,” I said.

“There’s nothing in that picture ‘sides that cliff.”

“What?” I asked, “They’re in front of the cliff.”

“There’s no one in front of that cliff, man,” he said flatly. Katy came back from the foredeck and plopped down next to Frank.

“What’s in this picture?” I handed her the camera.

“A cliff,” she said flatly. She handed it back.

“Must be hallucinating,” Frank said with a grin and a sideways look to me.

I mumbled something like: “Must be projecting…”


That night, I found myself drunk and alone. I didn’t have many people to see so I had took drove to the many beaches and waited for something to shoot. I decided to head up to Natural Bridges, still reeling from the events of the day. Frank and Katy seemed to have forgotten about the picture immediately after seeing it, which was good. Something in the curt manner with which they shrugged off my “hallucinations” made me uneasy, more uneasy than the “hallucinations” themselves. I know I had seen the women. I remember them.

I pulled into the back of the parking lot, hoping that the overhanging tree limbs would shield my car from the police. They often patrolled the state parks after sunset. The eucalyptus trunks were dark crimson, almost exactly like blood looks when it comes out of your veins. The smell was intoxicating. I wish I could have shot them but the flash would have ruined the color and without it, the picture would be far too dark.

A railing ran along the perimeter of the parking lot. Beyond this railing, a thin trail wound out to a rocky cliff, separated from the great “U” by a few feet. I leapt over the railing and ran to the cliff’s edge. Sixty feet down, the surf slapped against smooth rock. The yellow arch stood less than a yard from my toes. I took a breath and jumped. I landed safely on the other side. I stood on top of the  bridge, feet nearly submerged beneath a puddle of bird shit. The flat top was about 30 ft square. Gulls called to each other in the darkness, probably complaining about my unwanted presence.

I brought my camera up to my eye. I was facing toward the parking lot and Santa Cruz. Mission St. stretched out before me, leading up the hill to the college. The lights of the town, half of them dimmed or put out by now, poked through to the foreground of the frame. Red and green lights bobbed over intersections. And though the endless possibilities of neon lighting flavored the banality of the scene, I could not take a picture. I had seen it all so many times before.

The mountains rose like a circus tent in the distance, divided in the middle by a highway. A highway that I haven’t driven on in a decade. Driving up the 17 is incredibly dangerous, especially at night. The road bends through enormous trees, around sheer drops to the floor of Scott’s Valley below, and  road work and accidents block lanes and shoulders daily. You can come hurtling around a corner at 50 to see a chain of bright red lights, and if you’re not quick enough, you’re gone. 17 North is the quickest way to San Jose, terminating at the mission in Santa Clara after changing it’s name to 880. Taking a right there, and driving along Market St. for three or four blocks, you would see the house I grew up in, where my father still lives. You might even see my father, patiently smoking cigarettes in a screened porch.

I turned and faced the empty sky; only stars hung above the waves. They jiggled and leapt because my hands were shaking. I struggled to suppress it but it was cold on top of the bridge and the alcohol had begun to wear off. I began to feel sick, the movement of the waves, and the stars, and the smell of rotting seaweed and feces in my nostrils. I felt like I would puke, but I didn’t, I just stood there with my camera in front of my face.

I remember that the stars started to move together. I realized that it wasn’t all of them, just the thousand or so that were in the center of the frame. Stars would pass by others and hook them, dragging them to a new part of the black sky. Some twirled and spun in loose spirals. Still others seemed to have organized into distant square-dances, do-si-doing and shifting to an apparent rhythm. They swam in this way for a minute. Then she arrived.

Her hair and skin were the color of the darkest corner in the blackest night. Her eyes were two white ovals, her mouth a full, dark crease in the sky. Her gown, woven from the stars, wound around her as she slowly gyrated towards me. She wore no jewelry on her hands or neck. As she moved her way through the sky to where I stood, her gown unraveled, spilling stars back into the night. Her bountiful bosom attracted my gaze as it slipped out from her cloak. Then her legs, fine and supple, appeared. Her limbs moved violently around her. The pace of her dance was quickening and I felt my heartbeat quicken with it. Her eyes were now closed, and curls of sable hair fell down around her face. Droplets like diamonds dripped from her chin and landed on her shoulders and chest. The modest tumescence of her stomach bounced as she leapt, danced, and slid, in time to a beat that I could not hear.

She was femininity and she was strength. I think that, before the days of science, men would have called her a God. I cannot compare her beauty to any other thing I have ever seen. I can say only that the feeling of seeing her dance was similar to the way I feel when I look at the only photograph I still have of mom. In it, she holds me for the first time. I’m still a little bloody and my mouth is gaping because I must have been mid-sob when my father took the picture. She looks so patient, so loving, so beautiful with her sweat-drenched hair and weary smile, that I have to cry or bleed every time I take it out of my wallet.

Desperately, I began snapping pictures.

Click. She did not disappear. She kept advancing.

Click, click, click. She stood right in front of me. I could see the openness of her serene face. I felt the warmth radiating from her body. She took a huge breath. Then, opening her oval eyes, she looked directly through the lens of the camera.

Click. I remember the way mom used to dance, always and everywhere; she danced “like no one was watching” as people used to say.

Click. I remember the tall grass that grazed my buttocks as I was “showing her mine now.” She was the daughter of mom’s friend and I had no idea where we were. We had gone off together and when we got back our faces were red with new knowledge and embarrassment.

Click. I remember looking at the stars with mom as she pointed out all the constellations. When she ran out, we made up our own.

Click. I remember coming home drunk with lipstick on the corner of my mouth that I thought I had wiped off, but evidently didn’t. I noticed it in the mirror in the foyer but couldn’t get my sleeve up before my father turned on the light. “You’re shittin’ me…” he said, raising his eyebrows with something like pride.

Click. I remember leaving home and mom hugging me goodbye. I felt the wetness of her tears on my shoulder. Felt the shakes that passed from her body to mine. She kept apologizing, but it wasn’t her I was mad at so I didn’t say “It’s okay.” I should have said this.

Click. I remember a friend in college who passed out on a couch after drinking too much. I had a pen and was drawing all over her face and legs. I was hot, and red, and mad as I laughed hysterically with everyone else.

Click. I remember the pinstripe suit I wore to my first showing in a gallery. I got it at a second-hand store on Mission. It was itchy and smelled like someone else’s cigarettes. Frank and Katy were the only people I invited who showed up. They laughed when they saw me in the suit.

Click. I remember running up to a pink chest on the first day of preschool. My hands were sticky with chocolate because I’d been a good boy all day. My pudgy fingers reached for a pale yellow dress. I put it on backwards and mom laughed when it got stuck over my head. A blonde woman who I didn’t know pulled the dress around and yanked it down. I looked up at the woman’s face. She was very pretty. She said something and pointed to a mirror across the room. I walked over to it and grinned when I saw myself. I looked so beautiful.