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Dun da de Sewolawen: The Heart of Silence
by Christina Scholz
Feuhl Walomendêm: The End of the World
The decision was made the day my friend Toli came running straight through our inner yard and into my room, shaking and mumbling disjointedly about the end of the world. Even his presence in my family's house was something special that summer, since I'd been spending almost every afternoon at his place or at band practice with him and Dewa. My family wasn't really speaking to each other, and I still wasn't allowed to even go near Wëlë's boat. In the evenings I generally tried to stay out as long as possible, so I could minimise the time spent with my parents. I just couldn't look at them pretend-continuing their lives with all that saaht so plain on their faces. I couldn't even feel their saaht, which doesn't make me a monster, or numb, or callous. To me, everything felt unreal, as if I was trapped in a dream and couldn't wake up. Most of the time it wasn't even bad. Toli, Dewa and I spent a lot of time working on the few songs we had, and writing new ones, and in the evenings we usually sat on the old harbour wall, dangling our legs and watching the three-legged silhouettes of the salvage platforms out in the bay shift to new positions, and drinking cans of loi that I had liberated from my parents' cellar. I never got into trouble over that either. I don't think they even cared. Late at night I'd say goodbye to my friends at the back gate to Tendiva Park, where our ways parted, and slowly, slowly walk back home through the scent of the blossoming kalain bushes under a vast black sky sprinkled with uncountable stars. I'd tell myself that they were nothing but balls of fire a long way away, but that didn't take away any of their magic. Then I'd be reminded that somewhere up there, if you could call that "up", there was a desolate place called Itah, or Earth, from where our grandparents' grandparents had originated.
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Anyway. I was telling the story of how we decided to lantsei, take my brother's boat out to the centre of the atoll and call up the Zeuhlacanth. And it starts right there in my room, with Toli babbling about the end of the world. It took him a couple of minutes to calm down enough to sound a little more comprehensible, but what he then told me made it very clear to me that it was indeed the end of our world and everything we had created, and the end of our band as well. Warrei? Why would Toli's parents want to move away? It didn't even make sense. After all everybody knew that only a few generations back our ancestors had come here from a terrible planet, ruined by war and pollution, in order to start a better life in harmony with nature. We were made to learn all of the songs by heart that told of their journey through space and the discovery of our beautiful homeworld and their vows to never repeat past mistakes. Why would anyone want to leave here?
We picked Dewa up from the arche-electronics course she was taking over the summer. I'd teasingly called her a swot before, and sometimes a geek, but the truth is: I admired her skills and devotion endlessly. I still didn't know what to do with my life, and there she was, dedicating herself to becoming a top technician, so she'd land herself a job at the institute that studied salvaged tech brought in from the platforms and converted it to useful tools running on renewable energy.
Dewa was shocked at the news. We hadn't heard much of a justification from Toli's parents, but apparently their plans were set, and as teenagers we didn't really have a lot of say. And who would take our arguments seriously anyway? That our band was more important? To say nothing of our friendship.
Dewa and I had basically grown up together. Our mothers had taken turns looking after both of us, and so we'd more or less taken our first steps together, picked up new words from each other, and shared all our toys. Of course, since we were only a couple months apart, we'd also started school together and only started taking different courses when it became apparent that Dewa's main talent was electronics and technology, while I gravitated towards literature and culture and spent more and more time in the library, reading up on our history – but most of the time engrossed in one of our illustrated collections of mythology. This was also where I'd met Toli, who was studying languages and needed a lot of the same resources. You see, when our ancestors first settled here, that had a lot to do with leaving their old culture behind that was connected to the downfall of their civilisation and the ultimate destruction of Itah, and what they were yearning for and what most of all attracted them to this planet and the heritage of its Hurt Blum, or First People, was a language without all the cultural and ideological ballast they had accumulated over the millennia on their old world. You see, the language of the Hurt Blum is a pure language of the heart. It cannot be misunderstood, and it is tied to music. Of course we adopted many of its words over time, but in its pure form it cannot be spoken, it can only be expressed in song. So you see now how my interests overlapped with Toli's? Most of the time we were after the same books, so sooner or later we had to share a desk in the reading room and pass volumes back and forth between us.
I used to think I had a crush on Toli for a very long time, maybe years, and he must have felt similar at the time. We never even really talked about it. But I'd find him sitting in our favourite study spot with a cup of tea for me, just the way I liked it. And we'd leave each other little notes in the books we were reading whenever one of us was ill or didn't turn up at the usual time for whatever reasons. This went on for a very long time. Then one night Toli and I were sitting on a bench in Tendiva Park when we both saw a falling star. And somehow we ended up kissing. It was awkward, and we knocked our teeth together. We gave it a couple of tries, but it never felt right. Then we both realized that we were more like siblings with different parents than lovers of any kind, and so we made a secret pact and promised each other that we'd always be brother and sister and watch out for each other.
Lantsei: Running Away
It was easier than we thought. We spent a couple of days getting our stuff together and carrying it down to the harbour around midday when everyone was inside and the streets were empty of people. After several trips we were sure we'd packed everything we needed, including Toli's guitar and two mysterious plywood boxes that Dewa insisted on bringing. They were quite heavy, and the larger one was almost my height, but together we managed to get them on board my brother's boat.
The Siri was a small boat, like they use for leisure diving. Wëlë had insisted on naming it after me, even though everyone had pointed out that my name was already bad luck with its meaning of crying or tears. He'd just shrugged it off, and I'd been so proud at the time. We used to take the boat far out into the atoll, to the outskirts of the underwater ruins, and we'd put on our undêm-umennh that let us breathe underwater and go down to explore, making sure we never entered any of the mazes. You could technically stay underwater indefinitely wearing an undêm-umennh, but it would obviously be unwise to fall asleep down there with all the predator fish and andaksik lantsêm and whatnot, and once you entered any of the big complexes, you could easily get lost. That was also one of the reasons nobody ever went diving alone. What if you got trapped in a ruined passage or something with nobody there to help you back out? That wasn't what happened to Wëlë in the end, even though he went down by himself. I was still unable to talk about it, and I felt pretty uneasy on the boat, almost seasick, even though it was still moored at the dock. But the presence of my two best friends made me feel courageous, and after all we were setting out on an adventure.
Before we left, we spent a lazy afternoon at our favourite bathing beach, wading out through meadows of seaweed to watch the swarms of tiny jellyfish that acted like a single entity, parting and reforming when you passed your hand through them. It was nice to think of nothing much for a change. We buried each other up to our necks, shaping the sand into all kinds of monstrous creatures, then taking pictures of each other thus transformed. It turned into some sort of competition, which kept us occupied for hours. Finally, when the sunlight began to fade, we took one last swim to wash all of the caked sand off, then towelled ourselves dry and got back into our clothes. Toli had gathered some driftwood and lit a small fire that crackled and spat greenish sparks as we sat around it, staring into the flames. The black thoughts were already gathering again at the back of my mind, when Dewa said, "Tell us the story of the Zeuhlacanth again. We need to be prepared."
The Hurt Blum, who lived here long before us, didn't believe they were the First People. Their word for themselves was Blum, which only means "people". They believed that civilisations come and go like the tides, and that they were only one link in a long chain of Blum that lived here and interacted with the planet. Before their cities were swallowed by the ocean, did they find signs that there had been others there before them? Are there other, deeper ruins further out that we haven't found because the ocean has risen and we've only ever gone that deep? We don't even know what the Hurt Blum looked like. We only have some of the things they used, some surviving tech, salvaged from the ocean floor, then studied by our scientists and reproduced by reverse engineering. Or at least some of it, those things that they have managed to understand. Again, this is not my territory, it's Dewa's.
My territory is mythology, and the story of the Zeulacanth is my favourite myth of all. According to the Hurt Blum, some of whose songs we have found and translated as best we could, this world, these islands were produced by the ocean and will one day be swallowed by it again. Their word for ocean is "undêm", and the world is "Walomendêm". "Wol" means "from", and words used in compounds are sometimes transformed, so Walomendêm, the whole universe of the Hurt Blum, is "from the ocean". And like the ocean's own rhythm, life and death follow each other in succession. This includes the thriving and downfall of civilisations. When one vanishes, a new one rises out of the ocean. We seem to be the first people here originating from another world, but we found this world deserted, so we are the Blum now. And we look for traces from those who walked these islands and swam these oceans before us, and sometimes we find stories and bits of technology to translate, and we try to make sense of what we think we have found. Truth is, we might have got it all wrong. With nobody of the Hurt Blum here to guide us, we don't even know whether we're pronouncing their words right. We'll never have access to the way they saw the world. And it's not our world. So sometimes, when I think about it for a while, this really gives me the creeps.
However, the fragments of myth we have found and decoded tell us of one possible way to connect with this world, even as outsiders, and to hopefully understand it. Most people don't seem to take this seriously, but I wish, I hope, I want to believe it's true. You see, even though it might seem that the knowledge and the heritage, the etnah, of previous civilisations is forever lost to us, the Hurt Blum's myths tell of one creature, older than anything else, that has lived in this ocean since the beginning of time, and that remembers everything that has ever happened here. This creature is the Zeuhlacanth, the biggest fish you can imagine, and according to the Hurt Blum he lives in the deepest depths where the water turns black, in the Dun da de Sewolawen, the heart of silence.
Nansei Wainsaht: Ever Forward
I got up before dawn and snuck out of the house. As I passed my parents' closed bedroom door, I found myself hesitating for a second. Should I leave them a quick note? Just so they'd know that I was okay, maybe hinting that I'd be back if our experiment was successful? No, they would just get suspicious and maybe even go down to the harbour directly to see whether I'd taken the boat. If we didn't get a good head start, they'd probably sent somebody after us to bring us back in. We'd be a lot safer if they didn't know where I was. And with nobody really talking more than a mumbled "morning" or "night" and nothing much in between, I hoped they would assume I'd just got up earlier than usual and gone out for a walk or met up with my friends. Which was entirely true, wasn't it? If only they didn't think about the boat.
Toli and Dewa were already waiting for me at the dock. When I saw them I realised I was grinning as widely as they were. We were all impatient to set off on our adventure. And with all that pent-up energy it took us no time to unmoor the boat and get going. Soon we had passed the bright orange buoy that signified that we were beyond the range of the salvage platforms and entering the inner atoll. The perfect point to turn off the mekanïk engine and unfurl the solar sail. While we were all scrambling around on the roof of the tiny cabin, trying to keep everything under control while not knocking each other off the boat and into the water, the sun came up and made the still sea glow like fennh.
Instinctively we paused and just watched. Slowly, the world around us was coloured in and passed through a wide spectrum of different hues before settling in the familiar tones of our daylight walomendêm. A couple of bright specks were circling high above us, the only moving thing that we could see from where we were standing to the horizon.
Eventually we decided to let the Siri just float for a bit and have a proper breakfast before continuing to the goal we had set ourselves. Dewa climbed back down and handed us the bag with the thermos and baked goods she'd thought of bringing along. I was really grateful to have at least one person on the team who was capable of practical thought that early in the morning.
When she handed me the bag, a bangle around her wrist caught the sunlight and made me blink. And that was when one of the little bright specks stopped circling and swooped down.
When the seagull struck her, she stumbled back, lost her balance and landed spreadeagled on the deck. As the gull swooped back up, something small slid across the planks and dropped overboard with the tiniest flash. Only after checking on our friend, who seemed to be unhurt, and removing all shiny things as a precaution did we realize what had gone missing. Dewa's undêm-umennh had slid out of her pocket and fallen into the sea. They all had to be custom-made in order to fit properly, so they were expensive to replace. Making a new undêm-umennh took a lot of work hours.
"Oh no," Dewa whispered. "I'm so wurdah. My parents are going to kill me."
Without thinking twice I said, "I'll dive down and get it. It's so brightly coloured and the undêm is clear. If it's not too deep here, I might be able to find it."
Dewa took a deep breath, but before she could reply Toli said, "I'll go with you. Can you look after the boat and keep it still, Dewa?"
She nodded. "I know this kind of mekanïk like the back of my hand."
She danced back astern and already had her hand on the button for the anchor ray while Toli and I were still struggling out of our clothes.
I looked back at Dewa and saw her give us a thumbs-up. Then I nodded at Toli and we jumped.
The undêm was warmer than expected and so clear that you could see for long distances. I equalised the pressure in my ears and adjusted my undêm-umennh over my nose. After exchanging a glance and the hand signal "OK" with Toli, I kicked down at an acute angle, all the time trying to keep my friend in sight.
Swarms of shimmering silvery-blue fish exploded away from me while in the depths below I saw a vast shadow that seemed to be darkening as I was diving towards it. All of a sudden I entered a stratum of chilling cold water, and simultaneously the shadow got clearer and turned into interlocking bits of masonry before my eyes, all of it covered in intensely green algae that made the edges that had been softened by the undêm appear fuzzier still.
Something like a vice closed around my throat and I felt as if the cold and blackness was trying to swallow me. Impulsively I gasped and got water in my airway. I coughed and flailed and struggled upward. It took forever without fins but eventually I broke through the surface and ripped off my undêm-umennh. My eyes were streaming and all I could focus on was trying to catch my breath. Suddenly I felt Toli catch me and slowly, carefully guide me back to the ladder in the stern of the boat. He helped me up and for a while I just lay on the deck with my eyes closed and spluttered until my breathing relaxed.
After a while I sat up and felt Toli and Dewa each put an arm around my shoulders.
"Are you okay?" Toli said. "What happened?"
"I don't know. I choked", I said. Then I took a deep breath.
"No. Actually... I thought that the lantsêm that got Wëlë was coming for me."
My brother had built the boat himself. He'd then invested a lot of time and effort in painting it green and decorating the sides with images of mythological creatures rendered in meticulous detail. There were all sorts of water sprites and ocean deities from both Itah and Kobaïa. Towards the bow, a painted woman with seaweed hair and tentacles held a big conch in her hands with the inscription "Siri". My name and the name my brother had given the boat. He always said that with all those spirits watching over it, it would never capsize or sink. He used to take it far out into the bay on weekends and stay out overnight. Nobody asked him whether he spent all that time diving or fishing or sunbathing or just getting drunk on deck. He had always been the quiet type, most happy when he could retreat to his own little world, and he seemed to be safe, so we never questioned any of it. Sometimes he would take me out on a tour of the harbour or to one of my favourite diving spots, and those trips were still among my favourite memories. Other times, when he went out by himself, he would bring me back little souvenirs. Seashells, the brittle skeletons of zanka starfish, and once a couple of tiny glazed figurines that I was pretty sure he'd salvaged from a sunken shipwreck or one of the underwater ruins of the Hurt Blum. I kept them on my dresser and didn't ask him about their origin.
One day Wëlë stayed out far longer than usual. I could tell that my parents were starting to get worried, because my mother kept cleaning the same spots over and over again, and my father smoked a lot of cigarettes outside our front door, where he could keep an eye on the road. Nobody told me to go to bed either. So I climbed up on the roof (which wasn't as soia as it sounds; unlike the big stone buildings of the Hurt Blum, all of our houses are one-story structures) and looked at the stars. I'm always on the lookout for shooting stars, but that night I didn't spot any. Instead, I tried to find all the constellations I'm familiar with, and then I turned to making up new ones.
I was getting kind of drowsy halfway through inventing a story about a celestial guinea pig that had somehow got a bit out of control, when I heard raised voices downstairs. The tone made me uneasy, so I lay flat on the roof and looked over the edge. I saw the backdoor of the kitchen open and Wëlë stumble through into the inner yard. He walked directly across toward his room, but he was moving like a puppet, or a sleepwalker. Even though it was dark, I could see that his face was very pale, and his eyes looked straight ahead but didn't seem to register anything. He opened the door to his room, still moving mechanically, and disappeared inside. My parents both went after him, and I could hear mumbling, intense and concerned. Then, louder, "Wëlë, Wëlë! What is it? Wake up!" Suddenly I was very afraid.
I slipped back down through the skylight as fast as I could, and I remember that my heart felt as if it was trying to climb up my throat. Just before I reached Wëlë's door, my father ran outside and said, "I'm fetching the doctor. Don't go in, please." I turned my head, and the last thing I saw before my mother brusquely closed the door on me with a look of worry and fear on her face was my brother lying on the bed, prostrate as a corpse, and there were black tentacles coming out of his eyes, nose and mouth, insubstantial like smoke, snaking towards the ceiling. In the dim light, they looked exactly like squid ink dissolving in seawater.
In the language of the Hurt Blum the word for what we call squid was andaksik lantsêm. Something like ghosts that move with the current, or maybe like the current.
That one terrifying moment, that glimpse through the door, was the last time I ever saw my brother's face. When they carried him out the next morning, his body was wrapped in a sheet. He was incinerated, and his ashes were scattered in the sea. I wish I could at least have said goodbye.
Lêmworitstêm Helolesz: Dark Descent
"Sorry for being so silly", I said. "I know nothing can happen to me when I'm wearing my undêm-umennh. There was no reason to panic."
"No, it's okay. My dad says it happens to the best divers sometimes", Dewa said. "Sucks, though. Good thing Toli was there to watch out for you."
"It's me who should be sorry", she continued after a pause. "You went down because of me, so I feel responsible."
"Oh, shut it!" I said and immediately broke off. I hadn't wanted it to sound harsh.
"Sorry. I mean... It's not your fault, and you know that. And if we just sit here and discuss who's to blame – ferh, even if we end up agreeing on somebody to blame – that won't help us get your undêm-umennh back. So..." I fell silent. I hadn't thought much further than that. Luckily Toli came to my help.
"No, but I saw it! I saw your undêm-umennh, Dewa. I was just about to sign to Siri that I'd found it, and it wasn't even that far down – when I turned around and saw only a mass of bubbles where she was already kicking back up. Um... Siri, if you don't feel well about going back down, I totally understand. I'll go alone, too. It's not that far."
"No. Really, I have to go back down, or I'll never do it. And I love diving, so I must. Besides... I'll never let anyone who is important to me dive alone, ever again. I won't see anything happen to you!"
Toli smiled. "Okay. And I'll watch out for you in return. Tell me when you're ready. You won't believe where the undêm-umennh landed!"
This time it was much easier, because I knew what was coming. I went down at a much slower pace and paid more attention to my surroundings – and to Toli, who was keeping pace with me, never more than an arm-length or two away, his dreads streaming out behind him like the tendrils of an anemone. There was the layer of colder water, there were the crumbling walls covered in sea moss and algae...
And just a bit further than I'd ventured last time, suddenly a vast statue came into view out of the darkness, taller than both of us together and half its face eroded away, so that it was impossible to say what features it might have possessed when it was still above water. It had lots of arms, some of which still had hands or hand-like appendages attached – and in one of those there was Dewa's undêm-umennh, gleaming up at us. I looked over at Toli, hoping that he'd notice my smile. As if a god or goddess of the sea had caught it and kept it safe for us!
Zankam Kalkulahem: Navigating
Finally we got around to having breakfast, and this time we felt we had worked hard to earn it. I don't think that any cup of lukewarm tea will ever taste as good as the one Dewa passed me as soon as Toli and I were back on deck. She had also brought some udea pastries, which we were already busy munching while she threaded a piece of string through a loop on her undêm-umennh and slipped it over her head. We let the sun dry our hair, and I remembered my grandfather telling me of the ocean on Itah that his own grandparents had seen, even though in their day you couldn't swim in it anymore. They had told him that it was very salty, much saltier than the undêm here, so that evaporating seawater would leave white rings of salt on your clothes and skin, which would feel dry and itchy. It felt weird to imagine this.
Later Dewa took out her kompass and started calculating. Toli and I would then adjust the solar sail according to her specifications while she took over the rest of the instruments. Once again I found myself wondering what I'd do without her, and because of the weird mood I was still in with Wëlë's wurdah still echoing in my mind, I went down and squeezed into the tiny cabin with her and all the equipment we'd brought and told her. To my surprise, she didn't laugh it off but hugged me tight and then looked into my eyes and said, "You don't know what that means to me right now." I must have given her a questioning look in return, or maybe she was just in the mood to talk about it, because she went on, "You know my father and how he never really gives me praise or anything? Well, I thought that that would change when I enrolled in this summer programme on arche-electronics. I mean, I love doing this, and I hope that it will help me get into a better school one day – but it's as if nothing is ever good enough for my father. I constantly give my all and I get no recognition. Sometimes I think I should just stop bothering. My assignments are getting harder and harder, and whenever I mess up and something ends up malfunctioning or not even working at all, that's all he seems to remember, never the good stuff. I don't even get enough sleep anymore."
I hugged her again, at a loss for words. I'd noticed that Dewa seemed quiet lately, but now that she was finally opening up again, I didn't know how to react. "I think you're very talented," I said. "I could never do the things you're doing. And you will be amazing one day, I know that. I hope he'll see it too." I felt very awkward.
Dewa gave me a brief smile. "Thanks. You know... While I'm learning something new, it always feels like very hard work. Especially as long as things are not going the way they should. But I'm curious about new stuff and how it works, so I keep trying. And suddenly I've done something I couldn't do before, and that's when I look back and realize how far I've come. It's like... You don't see the way while you're walking, but once you reach higher ground, you can look back and you see all the progress you've made." She looked down and laughed. "But that's probably silly."
"No, I don't think it's silly at all. It makes a lot of sense to me, and I hope I'll get to a point where I can see that too."
Mêm da Tendi: In the Centre
Near the centre of the atoll there was a group of tiny islands, nothing more than rocks poking out of the undêm for the seagulls to sit on. There were no underwater ruins in that area, and nobody came out here to dive either, even though the rocky slopes were covered in multi-coloured coral and teeming with fish and bizarre-looking sea slugs. We soon discovered several possible reasons for this. First we noticed that steering got more and more difficult. There seemed to be strong and unpredictable currents around these islands. Then Dewa called out to us, "Look at this! The magnëtik around here is going crazy!" It was true: the kompass needle was spinning fast, occasionally changing direction. The boat's instruments couldn't agree on anything; it looked as if reality outside the Siri was constantly changing. But to our eyes, everything looked alright.
"I think we should head for this bigger island over there", Dewa said. "See which one I mean? The one that looks like a spaceship from here!"
We screwed up our eyes against the sun, and really, there it was. In the heat the air above the horizon was rippling, creating the illusion that one of the islands was floating just above the water, warped into something like a lentil shape by merging with its own reflection. We grinned and nodded and held tight onto the mast and the low metal railings that Wëlë had affixed all along the edges of the cabin roof.
The island was perfect. We steered the boat into a tiny inlet and moored it to a tree. Dewa checked her notes again and said that even though we weren't in the actual centre of the lagoon, the magnëtik readings were very interesting, and we could definitely use them in our favour. By now I couldn't contain my curiosity any longer. "Have you made new modifications to your klawiehr?" It wasn't easy to manoeuvre the bulky plywood boxes through the cabin door, but together we made it. "No", Dewa said. "I had to leave it at home altogether. It wouldn't have fit anymore. I'll have to improvise." Then she gave me a sneaky smile. "Help me set up the new apparatus, and you'll see what it does. Toli has brought some loi which may just be cool enough to drink when we're done."
Elektrïk Andaksik: Electricity
I helped Dewa carry the boxes to the most elevated part of our little island, then assemble the contents according to her instructions. When we were done, I was looking at what was basically a tightly wound copper coil, that much I could tell, wrapped around some sort of pole that was almost my height. On top of that we had affixed a ring-shaped secondary coil, covered in a thick layer of transparent varnish, but not connected it to the primary. I swear, even as we unpacked the parts from their nests of straw, I could feel a weird vibration emanating from them.
Dewa took some time meticulously checking everything and reconnecting some wires, constantly mumbling something about "capacitors" and "inductors" and a "spark gap", which all sounded like Alienese to me. Suddenly there was a loud humming and a bright blue spark, which made her gasp and jump back. Then she threw a switch and the humming stopped. "Good thing I added a disconnector," she said. Then her eyes widened. "Zessmet! This can't be happening! Oh, this is amazing! It works, it really works!" By now she was jumping up and down, shouting and laughing wildly.
Toli joined us on the hilltop just as I was prying an explanation from her. From allusions in the books of Kobaïan mythology and from our own interpretations of some of the illustrations we had concluded that we'd need a lot of electricity for our experiment, and Dewa had successfully built various kinds of generators before, but for her to be so thrilled and astonished, something unforeseen and miraculous must have happened.
"Toli, Siri – don't touch the coils", was the first intelligible thing she said when she had stopped laughing. "I mean, it's okay now, but I'm not even sure how long my disconnector switch will work. You see... I can't even quite believe it myself, but it must..." She took a deep breath. "Um, remember how all the instruments started misbehaving around here? There must be a moving magnëtik field around this group of islands. Well, usually a generator works like this: you spin a coil of wire inside a magnëtik field, and the constantly changing field inside the coil results in an elektrïk current flowing in the wire. Instead of the energy coming from a battery it comes from the magnëtik field. But with the field itself already moving, and I didn't know that this could occur in nature, we don't even have to spin the wire! This thing... As long as it holds together and doesn't short out, it generates its own elektrïk andaksik!"
"But...we can't be the first ones to find out about this", Toli said. "If such a thing is possible, why isn't it already in use? Even the Hurt Blum used energy generated by wind and water and zanka and stored it in batteries. We know that. The ones we use are retro-engineered, modified versions of theirs."
"I... don't know", Dewa said. "You probably have a point. But I do believe that we can use this. If we're going to succeed in calling the Zeuhlacanth, this is just the place for it, I know it. Let's do this, please? I promise to keep an eye on the generator at all times. If anything happens that we don't want to happen, I'll disconnect the wires immediately."
Doia Doia: Stay
After all this excitement we felt it was best to take a break and have a loi down by the sea before conducting our big experiment. "Not too long a break", Dewa warned, but before she could start on another lesson in basic electronics, Toli said, "Yes, mum" and handed her a cold bottle of loi.
We dangled our feet in the undêm and for a while nobody said anything. I drummed a rhythm on my knees until I caught a look from Dewa that made me stop. I followed her gaze over to Toli, who was clinking his bottle against his teeth while staring into the distance.
"You okay?" I was sitting closer to Toli, so I nudged him in the ribs.
"What? Yeah, I'm sorry, I just got kind of distracted. The whole emigration thing again. I've decided I'm not going."
"What do you mean you're not going? Have you talked to your parents about this?"
"Er, not exactly. The thing is... They never asked me! They just presented me with a decision they had already made without me. I mean, I kind of understand their motivation. They have this really cool opportunity to go and work on a space station. Not indefinitely, that's not it. They said they'd come back eventually with new medical and scientific knowledge – which may be problematic in itself. I mean obviously some people will always frown upon that, especially those who believe that it was so-called scientific progress which led our ancestors' neglect and eventual destruction of Itah. And this is still a young colony. There's so much we don't know yet about this place, and if we interfere with it too much, we might not get another chance. So yeah, I'd rather stay and finish school here and explore Kobaïa than move away and learn whatever that's nothing to do with this world, this walomêndem. And I want to stay with my friends, with you. And besides... nowhere else could feel like home."
He stopped and drained his loi, then twirled the empty bottle in his hands.
"They just don't take me seriously", he added after a bit. "They never ask me what I want. So if it turns out that I want something else, something they haven't planned for me, they expect me to just go along? Well, fuck that. If they're happy there, they should go. But they shouldn't expect me to be happy there, like on order. I'm staying. And I'll find a way. I'm old enough."
"Whatever happens, I'll always be on your side. If there's anything I can do to help, I will do it", I said. "You know what, if your parents should have a problem with your decision, just come over to ours. Maybe my folks need something to shake them up, to give them something to do. And something new to think about. And..." I swallowed. This was hard – but it felt like the right thing to say. "...there's always Wëlë's room."
Toli hugged me wordlessly, and Dewa looked away, but I could see that she was smiling. While I was concentrating on keeping the tears down, she filled our empty bottles with seawater and played them like a xylophone.
Switched on, Dewa's generator was awesome. The air felt like it does before a storm, and bright lightning bolts were shooting out of the top coil, accompanied by the buzzing noise we'd already heard before. At first it was kind of spooky, especially when I saw one of the elektrïk arcs jump over and touch Toli, who gave a shout that sounded more like surprise than pain, but still gave me a bit of a shock.
"Whoa! It's alright, I'm fine – but I could feel it! I could feel the elektrïk andaksik. Maybe we'd better keep a bit of a distance."
It's not easy to form something like a wide circle when you're only three people. Maybe we were forming a wonky triangle. Maybe that's why everything happened just the way it happened. Maybe I don't even want to know.
We took our positions around the sparking, humming coil. In some of the books Toli and I had been translating there were illustrations showing indistinct figures in long robes standing around what reminded us of giant lightning rods. So we figured that the Zeuhlacanth was attracted by high frequency elektrïk andaksik. In addition – because the more theatrical the ritual, the better the outcome, right? – we had improvised the best Malawelekaahm that we could come up with, cobbled together from bits and pieces we'd found in the book, reformulated so it would sound like a genuine invocation. At least to us it did.
We started chanting.
Donda! Donda! Donda! Zeuhlacanth!
Wïwï Dondaï wïwï Dondaï
Wïwï Dondaï wïwï Dondaï
Wï wï Ëss Ëss wï wï Ëss Ëss wï wï Ëss Ëss wï wï Ëss
Wï wï Ëss Ëss wï wï Ëss Ëss wï wï Ëss Ëss wï wï Ëss
I looked up and noticed for the first time that the sky was darkening. It did feel like an approaching storm, and the excitement of the moment and the lightning bolts from the coil – small but many, and all of them the result of my friend's work – made everything feel so intense... I realized that for the first time in months, I was feeling actually alive, and very much so. I remember thinking: it's all like a dream, but I've been walking through a dream for so long now, it's actually more like finally waking up.
Still, the sea remained calm as before. The Zeuhlacanth didn't come.
Zeuhl: Celestial Music
When nothing happened, the three of us dispersed. Toli took up his guitar and started to play the song he'd been working on for a while now. I looked up because I recognized the melody he'd been practising, but what he had done with it gave me chills. It was based on some snippets of a traditional song that he had found in an old book, entitled Nansei Nansei Nansei Loff, which we took to mean Bound To Lose. Toli had played around with the melody as well as the lyrics, slowed everything down and transposed it so that the light-hearted tune was transformed into a heart-rendingly sad song, questioning the whole walomêndem the original had so casually described. And then the most amazing thing happened.
Toli took another step forward, which brought him closer to the randomly buzzing and crackling coil. Suddenly the buzzing changed pitch and played along. The thing was amplifying Toli's zunh, all the while giving off purplish-white lightning sparks in rhythm. Something was reacting, playing with the current – possibly by manipulating the magnetic field.
After a moment of paralysis, I ran to get my cajón. Dewa was already setting up the water-filled bottles again, which she had tuned to Toli's guitar.
At first we were improvising over a solo that Toli was playing, and then I wasn't thinking about playing at all anymore. It was as if the rhythm was playing me rather than the other way round. The sky had turned dark as if during an eclipse, and the waves clashing against the rocks provided a nice background ambient noise.
We all started to sing new verses, in words that occurred to us naturally, and then I realized that we were singing straight from our hearts, in real Kobaïan.
Everything that we hadn't given voice to in so long was in there: Toli's frustration at not having any say in his parents' decision to leave, his fear of having to leave his friends behind, and the fear of being somewhere new, out there in space, unconnected to the world he called his home. Dewa's insecurity, and her passion for what she was doing and constantly learning to do better, and her conviction that she wasn't doing it to appease her father – she was doing it because it was what she loved. Her pride in her work and her joy in getting to share and enjoy it with us. My loss and my saaht that I had been carrying around inside me for so long now, pent up, an ever-increasing pressure without any outlet, because I just hadn't known what to do with it. Now, suddenly, after all this time, my eyes were streaming with tears, and I didn't care, because the only two people who were there to see it were my best friends in all of this walomendêm, and I loved them, and it was okay. But it was not! I wanted my brother back, and it wasn't going to happen. I threw my head back and sang my protest and my anger at the top of my voice.
In that moment we were playing actual zeuhl.
And that was when the waters parted and the Zeuhlacanth appeared.
The first thing we noticed was a change in the atmosphere. A sudden surge in the elektrïk andaksik made our hair stand on end. Then an area of undêm close to the island started to give off a purplish-white glow, echoing the lightning filaments from the coil, pulsing and seemingly approaching. When the glow had reached the place where the water turned dark, the surface started to ripple, and a giant head appeared, saltwater dripping off its many barbels.
It was like a dream, only I knew it was not because I could feel my palms against the tapa of my cajón and the charged air against my skin. We never even stopped playing as the Zeuhlacanth circled the island we were standing on, the colours reflected by its scales constantly changing.
As I was watching the giant fish, the whole walomendêm seemed to change in front of my eyes. I could see everything much more clearly. We had come here to prevent the end of our world. Since we had started out, a lot of things had happened, which had transformed us and brought us closer to the goal we wanted to achieve. And we were still on the right track. Apocalypse not only meant an ending or a destruction, it also signified a revelation. And the same thing was happening to my perception of the music we were playing. Viewed from this other side, it wasn't at all about sadness and fear and longing anymore. "Nansei" could mean "always" or "forever", but also "never" – depending on how it was used. Yes, we were always going to lose something, we would always have to let something go. But if we continued on our way without fear, standing up for the things and the people we loved, we would win. Because if you do something with all your heart, you will succeed at it. That's what the Zeuhlacanth seemed to show us.
Then I noticed that I was cold all of a sudden. The air had a strange tang to it, like overheated metal. Beside me, the coil was crackling and shooting out huge sparks straight upwards. I looked up and saw a vortex forming in the black clouds directly above us, which seemed to mirror the swimming motion of the Zeuhlacanth, only going in the opposite direction. In the middle of this vortex, a hole seemed to be opening up, and I screamed when I saw black smoky tentacles snaking out.
Zessï din lidente: Masters of our Fate
My scream stopped the music. Both my friends looked at me, then up at the tentacular mass of darkness reaching down through the hole in the clouds. Then things happened very fast. Toli dropped his guitar – which made me wince, even in the face of unspeakable danger – and dived for the disconnector switch. I could hear the clack, but nothing changed, and the crack in the sky was widening by the second.
"It doesn't work!" Toli shouted through the din.
Of course it doesn't work!" Dewa answered as she and I came running to help. "The Zeuhlacanth is controlling the andaksik! Or maybe... they are."
Wide-eyed, Dewa and I looked at each other, then kicked against the upright coil as if on cue. With a thundering crack, the generator fell apart, and we were catapulted in the opposite direction. I hit my head on something hard, but immediately scrambled to my feet and looked around, panicked, disoriented.
Everything was dark. The fish had disappeared, but the sky looked just as black and empty as the undêm that surrounded us. Stumbling around in the darkness, I called for my friends, and we found each other and confirmed that we were okay, all of us. Shaken and bruised, yes, but nothing more severe. Almost wordlessly we gathered our instruments, or what was left of them, and made for the boat. Whatever had happened on that piece of rock, on one thing we could all agree: We would not repeat this.
On our way back we noticed a pale light appear on the horizon and gradually get stronger. To us it seemed like a second dawn, maybe even the beginning of a new world. As we passed the buoy that marked the edge of the underwater ruins of the Hurt Blum, we exchanged a glance that told me I wasn't alone in feeling a strange chill thinking about them. If we hadn't been so lucky, who knows, we could have ended up like them, consigned our whole civilisation to the ocean floor.
Watching this weird, displaced sunrise, the three of us felt very much a part of this walomêndem, these stones, this undêm, our planet, our home. And right there and then, on the boat, I knew that it was no use wishing for my lost brother back. I had a brother and a sister, and they were right there with me. Together we had set out looking for answers, and we had got more that we had gambled for. But together we had also managed to come back out of this alive and well. If we stuck together – wasn't that the message of the Zeuhlacanth? – we'd go far yet. And that's how we named our band, there in the silence at the beginning of our new world, after the home of the Zeuhlacanth.
We are Dun da de Sewolawen.
Christina taught herself to read at the age of three and has never really stopped since. She reads everything from science fiction to cereal boxes, some of which ends up influencing her own stories.
Christina lives in Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her doctoral thesis on China Miéville’s fiction, and spending her free time touring alien event sites. She has written articles for Alluvium and Infinite Earths, published short stories in
The Big Click and Visionarium as well as several anthologies, and contributed recordings of horror stories to the NoSleep Podcast. Once she conducted a successful spring faerie exorcism via Twitter.
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