This was written for the Finals of the New York Midnight Challenge 2018: Flash Fiction.
It was a real honour to get through to the fourth round, there are ridiculously talented writers taking part all over the world! As usual, you get 48 hours to write a 1000 word story to their prompts… hope you enjoy my take on them…
Prompts: Any Genre, A Mobile Home, A Wrapped Gift
What Hope Sounds Like
There is more than one language worth listening to, and this scientist is traveling the universe to prove it…
I sail over the shadows of whales. They will not leave my side now they know why I’m here. Wide, arching bodies that sway beneath the waves, they are curious to see how my journey will end.
When I first landed on earth, I dived with them. Heard their crooning song, sensed their surprise when I crooned it back. I had not assumed a form yet, and they asked; are you one of us, or one of them? Neither, I replied.
Now, as I sail around the world in my Anyu, the whales sing to me. They sing of loss. They sing of a sickness in the seas. It is the same story wherever I go, whatever shape I assume. From the weeping icebergs of the north, to the smoking buildings in the burning deserts. I have walked into frost-bitten bars filled with flint-eyed fishermen and found no kindness. Stood in a city of men, listened to their suited hearts and felt only loneliness.
I stopped reporting my findings in Anyu’s Log on Day 3.
Ahead, the shoreline grows closer, a jagged line of pinched mountains and palm trees. Music drifts on the wind; village lights ignite in the gathering dusk. I have not visited the tropics, but I feel I’ve seen enough of this world to know I’ve already failed. Like my superiors predicted. I am their joke. The defective scientist who dared question their laws of life. Take a vessel, they sniggered, see if you can find a reason for us to spare the humans. So I did, desperate to prove them wrong.
The water becomes shallow, dotted with bloated bags and plastic wrappers. The whales sigh and turn back.
I anchor Anyu and wait for darkness. Push down the doubt and row ashore. From the shadows, I observe with surprise. The villagers are celebrating. Crowned with flowers, dancing around fires. Women lift their hips to the beat, men shake their heads and slap their thighs. It is mesmerising. I watch, waiting as my skin morphs into their likeness. Fifteen days on earth and I’ve learnt body shape and colour is imperative to humans.
The night hums with finite life. From the moaning turtle and spooked parrot, to the young couple leaping over the sand. How can we think we know what’s best for this planet’s survival? I look up at the unfamiliar stars and ask them. Their speech is slow and textured, a braided pattern of images. They show me what has happened in the past when my kind did not intervene.
I look down. A little girl stares up at me.
“What are you doing?” She asks.
The first child who has spoken to me. Her language is lyrical, unusual. I process it with pleasure, speak it back to her.
“I am listening.”
“The stars don’t talk!”
“Everything talks, if you listen.”
The girl laughs. It is delicious. A gurgle in her throat. A waterfall from high to low.
“Daddy,” she calls, “This lady is funny.”
A man turns from the fire and walks over, putting an arm around the girl’s shoulder. He gives me a white smile.
“Where did you come from?”
I point to Anyu. It’s the shorter version of a long story.
“Are you alone?”
He looks down at the girl and back to me.
“Would you like to join us?”
My first invitation. A strange warmth blooms in my borrowed bones. I thank him, Yes, I would. The girl is delighted. She takes my hand and sits next to me all night, plaiting my hair with orange flowers.
Dawn; a cacophony of sound. I wake slowly in my cot-bed, dizzy and confused.
“I feel strange, Anyu. I’ve not dreamt before.”
Anyu does not reply. She never has. She is my inorganic vessel, a shape-shifter’s toolbox that transforms into whatever I need, whether that’s a spacecraft or a sailing boat. Somewhere along the journey, Anyu became more like my home than home itself. Maybe it happened when I named her. I would be terminated for such sentimentality.
My human body is hungry. Just as I bite into a mango, I hear a call from the beach. The little girl is waving at me, father at her side. I wave back. She gestures with her arms; beckoning me over. Me.
I laugh. It feels like a burp, but with sound. I drop the mango, dive into the water and swim to them.
“Good morning!” The girl sings.
“She wanted to give you this, before school,” her father says.
The girl reaches into her satchel and pulls out a small parcel, wrapped in a banana leaf.
I’ve never received a gift before. I feel that strange warmth again.
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You haven’t even opened it silly!”
I unwrap the leaves. In my palm, like an iridescent trumpet, is a conch shell.
“It’s her favourite,” the father grins, “she collects them.”
“Put it to your ear! Go on, do it!”
“Can you hear it? Now you can listen to both the sea and the stars!”
I can. I can hear the sea and its creatures and more.
I thank the girl and her father. She skips off to school, the father waves goodbye.
On Anyu’s deck, I spend the day watching the sky spin around the sun. Lift the shell to my ear and listen. This gift is not enough evidence for my superiors. They are species’ conservationists, protecting the diversity of life within our universe, and they believe only in the language of mathematics. Lives are just numbers. 8.7 million species on earth. One species that is apocalyptically destructive. Do the maths. Terminate one, save many.
But I’ve heard what hope sounds like now, and I cannot give up on the humans. Down in the cabin, I sit at the navigational table and switch on Anyu’s Log. Life is more than just an equation, and I will prove it.
Read all my NYCM Challenge 2018 entries here:
Round 1: The Warlock’s Rebellion
Round 2: Mary’s Retirement
Round 3: Blindsided