Isolation story: (14) The Land of Grunts and Squeaks

Something happens which means that people can no longer relate to one another as they used to do, and have to find new ways of communicating.

The stories I’ve been collecting together here all deal with isolation of some kind or other, but this one is surely the closest analogue of the isolation we’re currently experiencing.

This story was written for a recent anthology called Once Upon a Parsec, published by Newcon Press, and edited by David Gullen, who had the brilliant idea of ‘fairytales told by aliens’ as a theme. Do check it out. There are stories by Jaine Fenn, Una McCormack, Kim Lakin-Smith, Paul Di Filippo, Adrian Tchaikovsky and many others.

My thanks to Ian Whates of Newcon Press for permission to use the story here.

The Land of Grunts and Squeaks

A long time ago, in a country across the mountains, a great queen displeased a spiteful witch. No one knows what the queen did to offend her – witches are easily slighted – but the wicked woman was so enraged that she placed a curse on the queen and all her people. “When this night is over,” she told them, “you will all be strangers to one another.”

It was a truly dreadful curse. It was worse than stealing their hearing from them, or shutting down their tingle sense. It was worse even than depriving them of the darkfeel, on which we rely so much as we move about our tunnels and chambers. Those would all be calamities indeed, but this was far more terrible. For when they woke the following morning, the people of that unfortunate country discovered they could no longer reach each other’s minds.  

Think for a moment, dear ones, what that would be like. Spread out your antennae to their full extent and notice what it is that you receive through them.  You can feel my love, for one thing, and the love you have for one another. You receive this story I’m giving you now, and a thousand others. You know the thoughts of all your friends. You can tell who’s happy and who’s sad, here in this chamber and out in the world beyond, and you know exactly why. And behind all these things, you feel the love of our mother, the queen, reaching out to all of us, caressing us, nourishing us, making us feel safe and cared for.  

And now imagine what it would be like, my dears, if all of that was gone  —every single bit of it— and all you could know of the world around you were the fragments that came through your senses. Oh, you would still know that we others were here, you would still be able to hear the sounds we made, you could still darkfeel our presence or see us if we were under the sun, but you couldn’t know what we were thinking, you couldn’t tell us things or receive our news, and you would have no way of connecting with how we felt. As to the queen, well, she’d be far away in her palace, and you’d know nothing of her at all. For all you knew, she might be dead.

Dreadful to think of, isn’t it? And yet, for those poor people in that land across the mountains, that was their fate for ever more.

How lonely life must have become. Children were left alone with fears which no one else could see. Lovers could no longer feel each other’s love. A woman would look at her life’s companion and think, ‘I’m sorry about those angry feelings I had earlier on. I truly love you with all my heart’, but her friend would have no idea she’d had that thought. Tender caresses lost their meaning, becoming no more than one skin touching another. People were prisoners inside their own heads. Many went mad with grief.

And yet loneliness was by no means the whole of it. The work of the queendom came almost to a standstill, because no one could ask or tell each other anything. First thing of a morning, farm workers would stand in bemusement in front of their forewoman, with no idea what she wanted them to do. The forewoman could think and think with all her might, but she may as well have whistled or made a face for all the difference that made. The workers just shuffled about embarrassedly until eventually, feeling like a fool, the forewoman picked up a scythe and, making the motions of cutting something, pointed and nodded in the direction of a nearby tunnel.

“You mean, cut the mushrooms?” the workers would ask her, but of course she didn’t know what they were thinking. She could only see their bewildered faces. And so she’d carry on with her strange performance until at last, embarassed and uncomfortable, they’d pick up scythes and trudge off, hoping they’d understood correctly, some up the tunnel to the mushroom caves (which was what the forewoman intended) and some outside to harvest leaves (which wasn’t necessary that day at all).

That forewoman was at least able, by her clumsy performance, to show some of her labourers what she wanted, but cutting mushrooms is a simple action, easy to demonstrate. How would the administrator of a province learn from her people about a shortage of grain, and, even if she could learn of it, how would she convey the need to sow more to all the thousands under her authority, spread out through countless tunnels and chambers? Yes, and for that matter, why would workers want to work at all, if they had no sense any more that what they did was appreciated, and no information as to what purpose it served?

Most dreadful of all, though, deep down in the warm depths of her palace, the queen, with her lovely huge soft yielding body, had, only a day before, been able to share her thoughts with every one of her subjects, just as our own queen does to this day,  but now she reached out with her mind and found nothing at all beyond the confines of her own head and her brood chamber. She couldn’t tell any more how many eggs were needed across the queendom, she didn’t know how many workers to make, or how many farmers and administrators, or how many guards.  She couldn’t direct folk to move from one place to another. She couldn’t relay news about opportunities here and shortages there. And above all she couldn’t comfort her people with that sweet warm radiance that up to now had sustained them all, just as you and I are sustained by our own beloved queen.

As to the young princesses and the men, those beautiful, gentle, idle creatures who’d basked their whole lives in the full intensity of that radiance, they now gathered helplessly around her in the chamber, their antennae waving uselessly about, their hands pawing at her enormous body, their mouthparts nuzzling her soft skin in the hope of finding at least some tiny remnant of the bounty that had been theirs until now. But they found nothing. Nothing came back to them. Her skin was just skin, her face was just a face, her antennae were as silent as their own. The despair of that was so great that some of them cracked open their own heads on the walls of the chamber, while others pulled at their antennae until they were torn and bleeding, in a vain effort to bring some life back into those suddenly useless organs. And some grew wings, so it’s said, though this wasn’t the season for it, and none of them were ready for mating. They had no plan in mind, no idea how flying might make things better, no notion of how they could even feed themselves with no workers on hand to tend them. But I suppose doing anything at all­, going anywhere but where they were, seemed preferable to simply enduring their loss. In any case, whatever the reason, they flew up into the sky and were never seen again. Most probably they were gobbled up by the sky monsters.

*  *  *

But there was one person from the queen’s chamber who’d kept her head. The captain of the royal guard, braver and more purposeful than men are, wiser and more disciplined than naïve young princesses yet to swell with eggs, had taken it upon herself to go out and search for the witch, in the hope of forcing her to reverse the spell. She’d gone to the witch’s chambers and to all the places she could think of that the witch might frequent, but she’d found nothing. After a certain point, she’d decided there was no sense in carrying on searching, for how can you search for someone if you have no means of conveying to others who it is you’re trying to find, or what they look like, or what kind of darkfeel surrounds them? And even if you could convey those things, what would you achieve if you had no means of receiving answers?

But the captain didn’t panic and she didn’t hurry back to the brood chamber. Instead she stopped and thought. She was a brave woman. (I would tell you her name, dear ones, if I knew, but a name has no purpose when it can no longer be told, and the captain herself soon forgot it.)  She thought and thought until finally she remembered a certain wise woman who lived in a forest some way from the palace, and was reputed to be the cleverest person in the whole queendom.  

The captain longed, as anyone would, to return to her rightful place in the warm moist darkness beside her mother, but she knew the queendom itself was in danger unless something could be done. So she steeled herself against the loneliness and grief, and hurried as fast as she could along tunnels, out under the sun, and back into tunnels again, until she reached the wise woman’s home.

*  *  *

Of course the wise woman knew at once what the captain had come about, for like everyone else she’d woken up to the sudden absence of the thoughts and feelings of others. But she was wise and so, instead of bewailing her misfortune, she’d tried to understand what had happened. “It’s as if we had been surrounded by light, and suddenly we were in darkness,” was her first thought, but that didn’t really capture the nature of the calamity, for who wants the harshness of light anyway if they can have the warmth and the comfort of darkness?  “It’s as if we’d been surrounded by pleasant sounds, and suddenly we were in silence,” she had thought. Ah, now that was more like it!  For everyone knows the pleasure of sound, the hum of a busy tunnel, the cheerful click and clatter of a meeting between friends, the slow drip drip of a moist mushroom cave. Everyone enjoys hearing sound in the background, behind our thoughts and feelings.

“It’s as if we are suddenly in silence,” the wise woman had repeated to herself, “and we long for sound to return.”

She knew what had brought this about because, like everyone in the queendom, she had been aware of the quarrel between the witch and the queen, and had picked up the witch’s angry threat. What was more, she knew something that most people didn’t know. For it so happened that, going up to the surface to harvest leaves for compost, the wise woman had seen the witch herself flying overhead on the unnatural wings – they were like the wings of a young princess – that she’d grown by magic. The witch was laughing up there, halfway between the sun and the soil, laughing with wicked delight at the harm she’d done to the queen, and the misery she’d caused to the whole queendom.  But the wise woman had seen something else which the witch had not yet spotted. There was a sky monster diving down from the blue on its enormous wings and heading straight for the witch, its horrible hard mouth opening as it came near. Dear ones, we should always be on the watch for sky monsters when we’re outside under the sun, but the witch, in her glee, had quite forgotten to take care.

Only in the last second did she suddenly sense its presence behind her, but by then it was too late. In one single gulp the witch was gone and, while no one perhaps would grieve her passing, she’d taken with her the secret of the spell. It was inside the belly of the monster as it soared up towards the sun.

So there was no going back now. Never again in this queendom would people be able to hear each other’s thoughts.

“Somehow we’ll have to manage without,” the wise woman thought. “Our thoughts will always be ours alone, but we must find some other means of giving each other a sense of what we know and what we want.”

She paced back and forth along her tunnels, absently tending her mushrooms, turning her compost and checking her stores of grain.  

“If what has happened is a bit like the absence of sound,” she said to herself, “does that mean that a sound can be like a thought?”

And at that moment, the captain arrived.

*  * *

Out of politeness, they kissed and stroked each other’s antennae although, without the shared feelings that should have gone with these gestures, the contact was comfortless to them both.  Then, stepping back, the captain spread her arms in a gesture of helplessness. What are we to do?

To the captain’s surprise and bewilderment, the wise woman responded by pointing to herself and making a strange grunting sound with her mouth.  She repeated this whole performance several times, and then she did something different. She pointed to the captain and this time made, not a grunt, but a funny high squeak.  

The captain was very embarrassed and wondered if the wise woman had lost her mind. But the wise one persevered. Once again, she pointed to herself and grunted, and then pointed to the captain and squeaked. After that, she stopped and looked at the captain, holding out her arms as if she expected to be handed a large fruit, or a tasty carcass.

But the captain had no fruit with her, and no carcass, and it came to her that perhaps what the wise woman wanted from her was to repeat what she’d done. She could think of no good reason for that at all – it seemed a silly children’s game – but she told herself that, after all, the wise woman was very clever, and perhaps had reasons she didn’t understand. More embarrassed than ever, the captain pointed to herself and made a grunt, just as the wise woman had done.

At once the wise woman stopped her by putting her hand over her mouth. She pointed to the captain again and made a squeak.  The captain’s antennae were fairly quivering with embarrassment now, but she thought that perhaps what the wise woman was saying to her was that the squeak was in some way to be connected with her, the captain, and the grunt with the wise woman herself. So she pointed to herself and squeaked, and then to the wise woman and grunted. At once the wise woman began to leap about the chamber, rattling her antennae together in glee.  

Still the captain was puzzled, but she was at least beginning to understand the game that the wise one wanted her to play. When the wise woman pointed to a pile of grain in the corner and made two short squeaks in succession, she too pointed to the grain herself and made the same sound. When the wise woman pointed to the dried mushrooms hanging from the ceiling and grunted and squeaked, she grunted and squeaked herself. And so it went on. A dried carcass, a bale of leaves… the wise woman attached a sound to every single object in her chamber, and made the captain memorise each one. And then she began to make new sounds to convey for example that the mushrooms were above the grain, the grain was below the mushrooms, the chamber was below the ground.

“These sounds are a bit like names,” the captain thought to herself. “Only they don’t just apply to people but to things and to ideas which have never needed names before.”

*  *  *

Ten days later, the captain returned to the palace with the wise woman, both of them skipping and waving their antennae as they entered those deep tunnels. It had been a hard and even dangerous journey, for the whole queendom was in chaos. Workers who should have been toiling underground were running back and forth aimlessly under the sun until thirst and exhaustion overcame them. Guards who should have been protecting workers were fighting one another. Mushrooms that should have been spread out to dry had been left to rot in piles.

When they reached the brood chamber, the captain and the wise woman found the surviving men huddled in a dejected heap, and the surviving princesses huddled in another, while women of many ranks and kinds came in and out, banging their heads on the walls, hitting at their own antennae with their hands, jumping up and down in agitation, as they vainly tried to receive some message from their queen, or convey to her their own distress and helplessness. Nothing was getting through.

But all the women stood still when the captain and the wise woman arrived, and even the men and the princesses lifted their heads sorrowfully from their miserable heaps. For the captain and her companion seemed hopeful, somehow. They seemed to think they had brought something with them which would be of use. Perhaps they’d found a cure!

The captain approached the queen, and respectfully licked her soft warm flesh.  Then she pointed to the wise woman and grunted. All the people in the chamber looked at each other –the princesses, the men, the servants and advisers and guards­­– hoping to see some gleam of understanding. But no one had any idea what was going on. The captain pointed to herself and squeaked.

*  *  *

Dear ones, it was a slow business, and several times the wise woman and the captain worried that the people were going to attack and kill them in their frustration, but slowly slowly – it began with the queen and spread gradually through the ranks to the humblest workers and the most dejected men– the people in the chamber got hold of the wise woman’s idea. These sounds, these grunts and squeaks, these clicks and rumbles, were a bit like names. Each sound conveyed a certain object, or a certain idea, or a certain action, and you could convey news, even if only very slowly and imperfectly, by arranging the sounds in a row.

So that was it, was it? It was a bitter seed to swallow, that this clumsy game was the wise woman’s substitute for knowing one another’s thoughts. It was obvious to everyone that, even if you could memorise ten thousand different sounds, a hundred thousand, a million, you would only ever be able to convey the tiniest fraction of your own experience, and even that in a dreadfully slow and plodding way that would always be open to misunderstanding. They would all still be alone inside their heads and, where once they’d been able to bask in the love of their queen, now they’d have to be content with hearing her make the sound which represented the idea of love, and even that only when they were in her physical presence. But as the queen herself put it: Click-click-high squeak, short grunt, rumble, low squeak-click-middling squeak, whirr. Which was her way of saying that this was better than nothing at all.

And they do say, my dear ones, that to this day, if you go to that country far away over the mountains, they still can’t hear your thoughts or know your feelings. So if you want to tell them something, or ask which road to take, or convey that you like them, the only way you can do it is by making funny noises with your mouth and hoping they understand. That’s just how it is in the land of grunts and squeaks.

Copyright 2019, Chris Beckett

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