"Tell us about Sjöwitz, Grandmama," Söbol said coaxingly.
Nestling into one of Fjænt’s loricated limbs, Söbol spoke with the confidence of a favourite. Fjænt stroked the delicate pink lid that surrounded her granddaughter’s principal sensorium, and the sleeping husbands clinging onto her shoulders buzzed contentedly in their sleep.
"Ah, Sjöwitz: the sea planet," she murmured. "But that is such a long story."
She exhaled [scent-of-tantalism] at the chorus of protests which she knew would meet this.
"Oh, please, Ag-bäht Fjænt!"
"It is the long night, Grandmama!"
"Yes, Gæd-Di is the traditional time for long stories."
"But it isn’t a traditional story," she laughed at them.
"It will become one, Ag-bäht Fjænt, and you know it."
"But Gæd-Di is supposed to be a learning time," she teased, "A time for all you youngsters to become one with the history of Hvotsätt, so that wisdom can pass from generation to generation."
"But we’ve done all the traditional stories, and it’s still ages until dawn."
They had been waiting for it for six long weeks now.
"Ag-bäht Fjænt; we learnt much from your dealings with Sjöwitz," said
Vœrech, a very solemn-looking Hvotsätten wife with beautiful long brown limbs. "It was the first of our neighbours to whom we sent an ambassador. If wisdom is to pass on to our generation and beyond, the story must become tradition."
"Vœrech [strong-walls-of-stone]," said Fjænt, using the younger wife’s full scent name, "one day you will make a noble Ag-bäht for Hvotsätt. You have convinced me."
Vœrech’s principal sensorium blushed a bright crimson, which spread rapidly to the minor sensoria at the end of each of her eight limbs.
"Only because you graciously allowed yourself to be persuaded, Ag-bäht Fjænt," she said in an undertone, shutting her lids in confusion.
Fjænt touched her affectionately with a minor sensorium.
"Let’s have some more kuhlwijn," she said. "It’s getting cold."
Several diminutive females went to tend to the fire, and to plunge charred sticks into the sweet wine to warm it up. While they served it to the wives, Fjænt resettled her husbands, who had been disturbed by the movement.
"Are they waking up?" asked Söbol, who was still too young to have been given any husbands.
Fjænt shone an amber "thank you" to the female who had just handed her a cup of kuhlwijn.
"They know it’s nearly dawn, Söbol. But they won’t wake until the first rays of the sun hit them."
She sipped at her drink and began.
"I was in the Central Hvotgrovnen when the news broke that we had finally located the source of the messages first heard coming from space fifteen years previously. It was a planet roughly the same size as Hvotsätt, but almost entirely covered in water. Hence the name Sjöwitz: the sea planet. We thought that there was a good chance that the primary species inhabited the water, at least some of the time, and would therefore have a good relationship with it."
There was a general nodding of agreement, and one or two wives murmured "the water remembers".
"I was at once given the task of familiarising myself with the new language. Ag-bähten Ahldre [this-mossy-pool] and Fölge-est [sweet-trees-of-orange-flower] were to assist me. We found it very hard to make anything of it, as it had no scent. But then Ag-bäht Ahldre speculated that perhaps the Sjöwitzen had no technology of transmitting scent through space, and that the strange noises that came with the words weren’t spatial interference, which was what we had first thought, but took the place of scent. It was our first breakthrough."
"What were the noises, Grandmama?"
"Oh, very many different ones," she replied fondly. "Some were the sort of noises the wind makes blowing through the trees. Others were more like the twanging of thin reeds, or beating against hollow rocks. Yes I know it sounds bizarre…"
Several wives had begun to laugh.
"But it really could be quite beautiful. We have recordings still, back at the Central Hvotgrovnen. Perhaps I should bring some for you to listen to."
"Oh, yes, please, Grandmama," said Söbol glowing several colours in quick succession in her enthusiasm.
"There were very many languages: we had to work out which were the most common ones to study. At first we were highly puzzled at the nature of the messages.
The vast majority concerned mating. It was some time before we realised that they were messages intended for other Sjöwitzen, not for us. They had no idea we were here. The important thing was for us to learn enough to be able to communicate, though, so it didn’t really matter.
"And you learnt underwater, didn’t you?" giggled Söbol.
"Hush, child: don’t spoil the story for the others," Fjænt chided her. "Here, rub my neck: it helps me remember more clearly."
Söbol obediently drifted up behind her grandmother to rub her scented oil glands against the slender reddish-brown neck that supported Fjænt’s principal sensorium.
"Mmm, that’s good," Fjænt sighed, glowing amber; her husbands chittering appreciatively in their sleep.
"Go on, Ag-bäht Fjænt."
"As Söbol said," continued Fjænt, "we had to decide fairly early on whether the Sjöwitzen were underwater creatures or not. It was just one of many mistakes one must expect to make when dealing with the unknown. I did feel foolish when I found out they were land creatures after all."
"So you had to stay in your water tank to understand them," said Vœrech.
"At first, yes."
"Why not in their ocean?" asked a young greenish-brown wife called Jlgœts.
"Because of the quarantine laws," Vœrech answered for her. "We must not directly touch creatures of another planet, nor they us, until it has been established that neither can bring any harm or disease to the other. This may take several generations."
"You are learning well," observed Fjænt, causing the younger wife to blush once more.
"But…" persisted Jlgœts, but was hushed by the others.
"The Sjöwitzen fished my tank out of the ocean and took me to the government of the nearest country. The savants of many countries came together to examine me, and I them."
"What were they like, Grandmama?"
"Amazing," said Fjænt, her principal sensorium glowing blue. "I could not believe that they had survived for so long, let alone become the primary species of their planet. They had soft skin, like a hatchling, but never hardening, even when they reach maturity. They had four limbs stemming from a main trunk. Their sensoria were single-function organs: two in front of fixed colour to see with, and two on the side for hearing. They had no natural protection at all, whether from the sun, or the cold, or from predators. Their strength came from their power to think and adapt. Anything they needed they made with their fingers. To keep warm they covered themselves with the skin and hair of animals, and plant fibres. They were even able to adapt minerals to make into coverings. Yes, my dear?"
Söbol had been waving her principal sensorium, and making it shine different colours, to get her attention.
"Grandmama, you only said that they could see and hear. What about smelling, and reading the water, and feeling, and everything else?"
Fjænt smiled at her.
"They could feel with their skin, at least a little bit. Enough to warn them of extreme temperatures. But a lot of their skin was covered up, so I don’t suppose they relied on feeling too much. And I do not think they could smell. Certainly not in the same way that we do."
There was a purple glow, and an aroma of astonishment at this. Even the females picked it up and glowed deep blue.
"But how did they talk?" asked Jlgœts. "How did they write; how did they name and recognise each other?"
"They used the other noises," exclaimed Vœrech, shining green. "The other noises that they sent with their transmissions."
"That is right," Fjænt said cautiously, "but those noises weren’t used in exactly the same way as scent. They didn’t use them all the time, for example; only when they wanted to express a desire to mate, or worship, or sadness; that sort of thing. And even then, not always. Their spoken languages are more complicated than ours, which compensates for the lack of scent. They have long names, for example, which put the scent of the meaning into words. Take my family as an example. Söbol and I share part of our scent. She is Söbol [flying-winds-of-the-sea] and I am Fjænt [storm-winds-from-afar]. In their language we might be Söbol and Fjænt Windyweather. Vœrech [strong-walls-of-stone] might be Vœrech Highwalls; Jlgœts [where-flying-creatures-lay-their-young] we might call Jlgœts Birds."
"Tell me mine, Ag-bäht Fjænt,"
"Do me, do me!"
"What is mine? Ag-bäht Fjænt?"
Fjænt nodded at the northern sky, which was very slightly paler than it had been.
"I will tell you all when there is more time. We need to get back to the story before dawn breaks.
"Because the Sjöwitzen had no scent, they could not read the water. Their route to technology had taken an entirely different course to ours. They were using copper wires, and electricity, and radio waves, which as far as I know would never have led to extensive space exploration. When I had been there long enough to win their trust, and they mine, I decided to introduce them to it. They wanted to send Ag-bäht here, you see, but they do not hibernate naturally. It would have taken them three of their lifetimes to reach us."
"How long is that in our years, Grandmama?"
"Only thirty, my dear."
"So they only live ten years?" said Jlgœts incredulously.
"Sixty of their own; and some live up to twice as long, I believe. But their sensoria break down."
"So they are like husbands, only without the hibernation, and without scent?"
"Oh, much cleverer," laughed Fjænt. "I had a special friend amongst them, you know, who was given to me because he was a language savant. Technically he was only a husband, but he was just as intelligent as any wife. They have no females."
The Hvotsätten nodded their sensoria sagely. Two-sex species were not unknown on Hvotsätt.
"I think he would have been chosen as the Ag-bäht, had things turned out differently," Fjænt went on. If her sensorium was tinged with crimson nobody commented, for her scent was full of sorrow. "His name was Isembard Smith. His family name meant ‘worker of iron’ so I gave him the scent name [foreign-friend-of-steel]."
Fjænt fell silent for a moment, lost in memory. Impatient Söbol wanted to get back to the story.
"Tell us about the water, Grandmama," she prompted.
"Ah, yes; the water," said Fjænt. "I had been there nearly three years, and was very competent in several languages. I decided to turn my attention to science. Quite by chance I had found out that they did have a rudimentary understanding of water memory. Most of their savants scoffed at the idea, but the homeopathic practitioners had discovered two hundred years previously how to make the water remember the essence of plants. It was a start. Isembard and I talked long about how to take this further. In the end we decided to have some sentient water sent from Hvotsätt with my next batch of husbands and khunwijn, rather than try to build on the native water. I was an ambassador, not a scientist-savant, after all.
"I incubated one of my next brood of my eggs in the Hvotsätten water. It was to become our scientist-savant. That was your mother, Söbol, whom I called Hjelpgi [breeze-from-a-far-off-planet]."
Söbol waved her indigo sensorium solemnly. She had never met her mother.
"The Sjöwitzen were most impressed with the water. We had such fun demonstrating it to them. We had to take it on a world tour to show their scientist-savants in every country the simplest things: memory of sound, light, scent, and so on. I was impressed with the thoroughness of their investigation into it. I had tried to explain it to them but as I say, my areas of expertise were in languages and as Ag-bäht, not as a scientist. In hindsight it would have been better to send a scientist from Hvotsätt rather than grow one there, but at the time I felt that it would be quicker and easier than trying to teach another fully-grown wife the language. We have learnt much from our mistakes!
"Since the Sjöwitzen were so short-lived I accelerated Hjelpgi’s growth. I was too impatient; I realise that now. By the time I found out, it was too late.
"But I get ahead of myself. Hjelpgi engineered a tiny amount of native water that had been distilled especially, and taught the scientists to do the same. Perhaps because they are so transient, perhaps because they had Hjelpgi to help them, but the Sjöwitzen learnt incredibly fast. Very soon they were asking if it was possible to do the same with a whole ocean."
"Was our sea not always sentient?" asked Söbol in wonder.
"All water can remember, Söbol, but it has to be taught to remember to remember," replied Vœrech. "Our ocean was engineered two thousand years ago."
"To understand what happened you must understand that I was sticking strictly to the laws of quarantine," Fjænt continued. "Up until now I had been very careful to drink and read only distilled Sjöwitzen water. I had never had direct contact with the ocean there.
"Now there seemed little point in not doing so. I had been there nearly forty years – long enough to have even long-term viruses pass out of my system. They had never infected me either, though we had breathed the same air for most of my time there.
"So Isembard and I went for a swim together one night."
She gave a huge sigh and the scent of that strange sea so far away flowed across them in a sudden flood.
"It was glorious. I cannot begin to describe to you what it is like not to be a part of the ocean for so long, and then to be one with it again. Even when it is not your own sea, but a wild, unschooled one like this. I felt buoyant and free, like a hatchling swimming to the surface for the first time.
"For a while Isembard and I played with each other, and with the sea, splashing about without a care. But then, out of habit I suppose, I began to read it. Untamed water is hard to read, but the remembering was clear.
" ‘What is it?’ asked Isembard, alarmed by my agitation…I…could not put into words…"
The words failed her now. Fjænt’s voice came to a halt, her scent stuttering about her in little eddies. The other Hvotsätten scented her distress, and moved close to comfort her, sending out soothing notes of evening flowers. After a moment or two Fjænt recovered herself, forcing herself to glow a neutral white.
"Such horrors, you cannot imagine. I had trusted them…I had friends amongst them…I still had friends amongst them, all of whom were in grave danger if they went ahead…"
She stopped again. Vœrech stroked her with one gentle minor sensorium.
"What was it that they had done that was so terrible, Ag-bäht Fjænt?" she asked softly.
"Let her alone, Vœrech," Jlgœts rebuked her.
"No, let me go on," said Fjænt. "We all must learn from the past mistakes of others. We grow together, or not at all."
She sipped some kuhlwijn to calm herself down.
"The ocean told me how it had been used by the Sjöwitzen; of plunderings and killings; of the stealing and spillage of precious oils; of innumerable creatures which had been tortured and murdered; of pollutants poured out without mercy, without end into both air and sea, so that the frozen poles melted, spilling their memories and wisdom, and diluting and losing so many of them, and…"
She leant forward with unusual seriousness.
"…and all this had been going on quite openly while I was there."
There was a heavy silence.
"But, how could you have missed it?" asked Jlgœts, in bewilderment.
Fjænt shrugged her great upper limbs with heavy sadness.
"I have often asked myself that very thing. It was largely a matter of language difficulties, I think. I had had to spend much time just trying to learn to speak basic words: it would have taken years to begin to understand the subtleties and cultural nuances. For instance, the word they used for '‘scientist' was just that; whereas ours includes the meanings of ‘philosopher’, ‘engineer’, ‘priestly scent’, and, most importantly of all, ‘ethicist’. I had failed to understand this. I had failed to understand their history; I had failed to meet a large range of people, such as industrialists, from whom I might have guessed."
"I’m sure that they must have played a part…shielded you from people who could have said …" said Vœrech uncomfortably.
"Yes," said Fjænt soberly. "Yes, they did."
After a long uninterrupted silence Fjænt carried on.
"I am not sure that at first Isembard really comprehended what I had found out. He looked so fragile and vulnerable in the soft moonlight. I tried to explain…I thought the knowledge would kill him. His skin, which had been so pink, turned a dull grey, and he clutched his hands to his heart. We ran back to his dwelling to stop Hjelpgi from going ahead. As he punched numbers into his communicator I switched on the broadcasting engine.
"Isembard was moaning ‘Pick up the phone, pick up the phone,’ but I could see that it was already too late. Hjelpgi’s picture was on the broadcaster. She wasn’t going to pick up the phone because she was even now holding her germ-tank of engineered water above the ocean. She had begun early.
"Somebody was making a speech. There was a burst of noise, as the Sjöwitzen flapped their upper limbs together in an expression of encouragement. Isembard and I watched in horror as Hjelpgi poured the water slowly into the ocean."
There was another silence, broken this time by Jlgœts.
"What did you do?" she asked.
"What could I do?" asked Fjænt. She asked it in a way that demanded an answer, for her own healing, and for their education.
There was no answer. Fjænt sighed.
"I told Isembard to contact everyone he loved and tell them to get to the mountains. There they might have some chance. I tried to make him go, but he begged to come with me."
"You were coming home?" asked Vœrech.
"I had to. There was nothing else I could do there. Hjelpgi was doomed: she was next to the sea. I guessed it would be a matter of minutes for her. My tank was always ready for take-off – part of the rules of the Ag-bähti."
"And did you take Isembard?" asked Söbol eagerly.
Fjænt glowed faint pink.
"Yes," she said. "I couldn’t bear to think of him drowning. If he did, and they found his body they would either burn him, or leave him in the ground to be eaten by worms…the thought was repulsive to me."
Söbol was a ghastly green.
"Eaten by worms?"
"It was their way, my dear. There are many strange ways in the worlds we visit; things we would see as an abomination are acceptable to others. Ours is not to question their ways."
"But how could he live…the tank was not suitable for Sjöwitzen…how could he eat?" asked Söbol.
"We managed. I had already introduced him to kuhlwijn. And we had a number of Sjöwitzen plants on board, which I’d planned to send back here anyway. Some of them were edible."
"But he could never have lived long enough to come back to Hvotsätt, Grandmama." Söbol persisted. "What did you do when he died?"
The pink of Fjænt’s sensoria deepened.
"I ate him."
There was a sudden explosion of laughter-scent.
"I knew it," Söbol crowed. "He was your husband!"
"Hush, Söbol," scolded Jlgœts, but with obvious enjoyment at this revelation.
"It would have been disrespectful to leave him," Fjænt said, trying to shut her lid over the pink glow. "Not to mention difficult to keep his body over so great a distance."
"You did love him, didn’t you?" Vœrech said. "As a husband, I mean. Even though you couldn’t have mated with him…you couldn’t have, could you?" she added hastily.
"No," Fjænt said, "we couldn’t have. And he was so much more than a husband could ever be…"
She picked up one of the sleeping creatures at her neck and stroked it fondly. Its principal sensorium was hidden by the lid, but the minor sensoria turned pink, purple and red, and it stretched and mumbled in its sleep. "You get very fond of husbands. But you spend the whole time looking after them; you can’t ever have a proper conversation with them; then you mate with them, they die, and you eat them. I think Isembard was far more akin to a wife. No, really…"
The other wives were waving in disbelief at her.
"Had he been here he would have been one of us, talking and discussing, learning and teaching. Females and husbands can hear, but they can never understand true wisdom."
"Did he have wisdom? Did any of the Sjöwitzen?" asked Vœrech soberly.
"Sadly, I believe they had abandoned it in favour of information," she replied.
"Did any survive?" asked Jlgœts.
"I think a third of the people died. We could see some of the destruction from the tank. The sea knew the weaknesses of the land: it knew and now understood what would happen if it caused giant landslides and earthquakes. Tidal waves wiped out many huge cities. Whole islands slipped under the water forever. The polar ice caps melted; many drowned. A third of the ships were engulfed. Poisonous oils from deep under the ocean bed were released, turning the sea red, and killing many sea creatures.
"Before we left I dropped some of my eggs into the water, begging it not to destroy them as well. It turned out to be the best thing I cold have done."
"Ag-bäht Sæledes-na [winds-of-my-memory] was one of them, wasn’t she?" asked Vœrech.
Fjænt nodded her sensorium, the scent of proud achievement drifting from her in spite of herself.
"And so began our permanent alliance with the sea of Sjöwitz," murmured Jlgœts.
"Grandmama!" exclaimed Söbol suddenly. "The dawn! It’s about to start!"
"To the water’s edge!"
As the day-star began to rise at the edge of the horizon the Hvotsätten scampered down to greet it with fragrances of morning flowers. Fjænt followed more slowly, helped by Vœrech.
"Do you have any regrets, Ag-bäht Fjænt?"
"No, my dear. In the end, we have still exchanged Ag-bäht with Sjöwitz, even if it is with the ocean, rather than the prime species. If…when they recover, perhaps they will learn to respect their own planet more."
"And if they don’t?"
"If they don’t, the sea now has Hvotsätt as a guardian. And we will always be far more akin to the sea. It is our nature. The water remembers."
Vœrech nodded sagely.
"The water remembers."
"I studied music at university what seems like a very long time ago. I started my married life on an ancient rusty houseboat, and had four children, which is several full-time jobs by itself. Since the youngest started school I have been self-educating myself in all kinds of fiction, both reading and writing, and am doing a creative writing course with the Writers Bureau. I now live in an ex-pub in Kent, England, and pursue a deep interest in the spiritual realms."
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