Escher’s Siren

DJ Cockburn

Illustration by Dante Luiz

‘Help me!’

The voice froze Thomas’s shoes to the sidewalk.

‘Up here!’

One look at the woman leaning out of the window was enough to crystallize the word ‘beauty’ in his mind. No, that was an understatement. Golden hair tumbled down to cream shoulders, left bare by her halter top. Her blue eyes transfixed Thomas even from four stories above him.

Thomas blinked. She was still there. You don’t run into a woman who looks like that on the way to the bus stop. He’d never met a woman like her in his life.

‘Will you help me?’

Of course he would.


Her voice alone was a good enough reason to be late for work. Her face would make a man late for his own wedding.

‘I’ll buzz you in,’ she said. ‘I’ll meet you at the top of the stairs.’

Her window was embedded in a tower-like embellishment to the corner of a redbrick house. Some interwar architect had gotten carried away with the idea of an Englishman’s home being his castle. He’d even topped it with a conical roof. It looked nothing like any real castle Thomas had seen, but the suburbs offered no better window for a woman with long blonde tresses to beg for help from.

Thomas was through the front door and up the first flight of stairs before he remembered he hadn’t actually said he’d help her. Oh well, she’d have gotten the message when he entered the building.

It was the type of staircase that reversed direction every dozen steps. After two flights of stairs, Thomas reached a landing with a door. Must be the first floor apartment, he thought.

It occurred to Thomas that he hadn’t asked the woman what she wanted his help with. Could someone be holding her hostage? Should he have brought a weapon? Silly thought. He didn’t know where to get a gun, let alone use one, and he’d probably stab himself if he got into a knife fight.

The thought carried him up three or four more flights of stairs.

He passed another door. Strange. He must have reached the fourth floor by now. At least he had another couple of flights to think about what he might be rushing into.

What had he been thinking about? He’d let his imagination run away with him. If she was a hostage, her captors were hardly likely to let her buzz him in. It would be something as simple as a blocked sink. A woman that beautiful would think it a law of nature that men fell over themselves to help her.

Another landing with another door.

How many apartments had he passed? Another staircase led upward so he still wasn’t on the top floor. He stopped to look at the door. Varnished plywood with a frosted glass window and a Yale lock. No sign to tell him what floor he was on. He pressed his face to the window, but no shapes suggested what might be on the other side. Just a uniform gloom that was neither dark nor light.

He shrugged and climbed the next couple of staircases.

Another landing, another door, another staircase. His legs felt heavier than he’d expect after a climb to a fourth floor, and he hadn’t got there yet.

Had he?

He must be thinking he’d climbed more stairs than he had. It was like going home at the end of an exhausting week to find the bus had lulled him into a torpor, and he was a couple of stops further from home than he thought he was.

He stopped at the next landing to catch his breath. The door was identical to the last one. The same varnished wood and the same shapeless gloom through its frosted glass. The same lack of indication of what floor he was on.

He tried to remember what the house had looked like from outside, but all he could remember clearly was her face. He couldn’t summon a clear picture of the building. He thought her window was directly under that ridiculous conical roof, but had he been so focused on her that he’d miscounted the number of floors? He might have passed her apartment already. Or this could be it.

He rapped on the glass. ‘Hello! Are you there?’

No answer.

He noticed a patch of mist on the window, as though someone had breathed on it in the last couple of minutes. Strange. He hadn’t heard anyone else on the stairs.

‘I’m up here.’ The mellifluous voice floated down the staircase. ‘Please help me.’

It banished the weight from Thomas’s legs and the thought from his mind. He almost ran up the next flight of stairs. He would dedicate the last breath in his lungs and the last beat of his heart to that voice. ∎

DJ Cockburn is a writer currently based in London, after having spent most of the last twenty years meandering around the world teaching or doing science of one sort or another. His stories have previously appeared in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction of 2014, Qualia Nous, Apex, and Interzone.

Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.

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